Picks and Pans Review: Outlaws

updated 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by George V. Higgins

Higgins takes his crooks-and-lawyers act on the road in this novel, to mixed effect. It's engaging that he shows such expansive cynicism, combining his standard New England crime plot—in this case a group of leftist radicals that robs armored cars—with FBI-CIA machinations. The FBI and CIA representatives, mostly middle-age women who appear to have Freon in their veins, seem to be transparently artificial props who are around so Higgins can suggest that they operate outside the law, just as the robbers do. It's not clear, either, whether Higgins is just noting these transgressions or arguing that when government agencies act illegally, it is more reprehensible than the behavior of those who own up to being criminals. As usual, Higgins indulges his aversion to writing direct action scenes. Almost nothing happens in this novel; people just sit around talking about what has happened. There is one brief robbery scene, but most incidents vital to the plot—an arrest, a poisoning, sexual encounters—are discussed only after they happen—and sketchily at that. Sometimes, too, Higgins seems to think exhaustive description is action in itself: "He crossed the loading area and made his way into the scrub pine grove that bordered the brook in the back. He stood hidden from the road and urinated into the brook, farting once as he did so." Compensating for such shortcomings is Higgins' reliable way with dialogue—usually dry, sardonic, bitter dialogue. A lawyer complains about his wife: "Barbara is a jealous woman, and with the memory she's got, she should have a —-ing trunk and be out hauling logs in Burma." Another character recalls a Chinese Army charge during the Korean War: "I knew I was going to die. Well, I didn't. Either I was lucky or God didn't have my room ready." There's also a judge named Bart who, it is to be hoped, is modeled on someone Higgins has met in his law practice. Bart is humane, witty and principled, a man who relishes paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo—"Defendants are entitled to fair trials, not perfect ones"—and informing a radical leader at a sanity hearing, "I for one have no doubt whatsoever that you're as sane as an angel now, and that, notwithstanding your virtuosity in applying your manipulative skills to the jury, with the same success you enjoyed among your loyal followers, you have in fact always been." The ability to produce good talk makes up for a lot of faults, in novels as in many other places. (Holt, $18.95)

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