Sudden death in the game of big athletics

THE AGENT By George Higgins Harcourt Brace 341pp., $24

Alexander Drouhin is conniving and slick, almost reptilian - the perfect ingredients for a professional sports agent.

In George Higgins's new mystery, the Boston-based agent wheels and deals, illegally overcharging athletes and courting prospective National Collegiate Athletic Association players before he should. He never hesitates to mislead. One of his colleagues says, "Alec always concealed the truth until it was absolutely clear that revealing it would be to his advantage. Until then he assumed it wouldn't be."

Drouhin got into the business before players had inflated salaries and egos. He had the vision and the savvy to expand, but with new competition, he's losing his foothold in the industry and not drawing big-name athletes anymore. Instead, he's baby-sitting marginal, smart-alecky players, but doesn't mind, since he's fleecing them for millions of dollars.

Not surprisingly, the employees of Alexander Drouhin Associates don't seem bothered when their boss is shot dead. Enter Lt. Frank Clay, a veteran detective. Interviewing people close to Drouhin, he discovers the company is rife with potential suspects.

The bulk of this novel consists of Drouhin's business associates recounting a lascivious boss who squirreled away millions.

Drouhin's right-hand man, F.D. Whitman, a former NFLer whom Drouhin made wear his Super Bowl ring in hopes of wooing clients, willingly opens the floodgates about Alex's life. He details how the business was slipping away from an owner in denial and how he glossed over serious problems.

Speaking to a group of fans recently at a Boston bookstore, Higgins claims, "I give you evidence, and you get to draw your own conclusions about the moral goodness of the characters." But, in fact, it's clear what this former sportswriter and lawyer thinks about the state of professional sports.

The inspiration for "The Agent" came from an actual incident involving a player and an agent.

"We get these kids when ... they don't have to obey rules," says Higgins. "By the time they get to full beef, they're pretty much ungovernable."

Higgins has a penchant for dialogue and an affinity for detail - sometimes belaboring it. Part of this is born out of his devotion to developing characters. He knows how to write engagingly about sports and the snaky people too often associated with it. He meshes corporate arrogance with pompous athletic bravado to give the reader not only a murder mystery but a view into the guts of the sports world.

*Lane Hartill is a Monitor intern.

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