Pitch Is Perfect but Not the Plot

THE best and the worst of ``Bomber's Law,'' George Higgins's latest suspense novel, are exemplified in the following passage:

`` `I've felt better,' Dell'Appa said. `And one common feature of every time, I recall feeling vividly better, I recall as well feeling much warmer. Have you got any heat on in here, or are you being respectful to fuel-making fossils, so their sacrifice wasn't in vain? I don't want to be rude with you, here in your very own house, boss, but the truth of the matter's: I'm cold.' ''

On the positive side, this is dialogue written as it sounds, not as some novelist imagines it. The talk is clever and a pleasure to listen to, much like Higgins himself. The conversation perfectly captures the essence of the characters, in this case Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Harry Dell'Appa and his superior, Lt. Brian Dennison.

There's only one little problem: Dell'Appa's complaint about the cold triggers six - count 'em, six - pages of discussion about why the house he's in is unheated. None of this has anything to do with the plot of ``Bomber's Law,'' which concerns Dell'Appa's effort to nab a Mafia enforcer and to get revenge on a longtime rival in the state police.

By the time this seemingly endless conversation is over, the reader is left squirming and wondering what the point of it all is. The only point I can figure out is that Higgins is so enamored of his ability to write pitch-perfect dialogue that he feels compelled to show it off at length, even at the cost of derailing his book's progress.

That's a shame, because Higgins is really one of the best American novelists around. His novels have earned him a well-deserved reputation as the ``Balzac of Boston.'' Not many writers have done a better job of chronicling the world of small-time cops and crooks.

Higgins's previous novel, ``Defending Billy Ryan,'' showed his talents off to their best advantage. In that tale of political intrigue, he combined dynamite dialogue with an interesting plot and a surprise ending.

``Bomber's Law'' doesn't quite live up to Higgins's high standards. It's still entertaining, of course, but it feels a little self-indulgent.

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