As holiday reading goes, George V Higgins may not be everyone’s first choice. When you’re sitting on the beach, do you want to read about rainy Boston and a succession of people swearing at one another and about one another? Well, it turns out I do, so Kennedy For The Defence, a book that feels as though it may be quite autobiographical, was the one I took with me to Western Australia.
The eponymous Kennedy is a criminal defence lawyer with a succession of different clients; a mobbed-up car thief who only steals Cadillacs, a dim Vietnam vet who wants to only fix boat engines but gets fitted up for a coke-smuggling rap, and a man who (according to the not-very-enligjtened characters in the book) is only gay to spite his father. That’s not the only 1970s attitude espoused; there’s the n-word ("stone broke or n_____ rich") although since nobody ever gets a physical description, we can’t say if this is a cast of white men or African-Americans or Latinos. But it’s a fairly good bet that these Bostonians are as white as the belly of a fish that lives all its life under a rock.
That and an "absolute goddamned Chinese fuckin’ firedrill" are the only racist notes I picked up on in the book; there’s a larger question of whether books like this condone or just record these attitudes; I’m not going to deal with that here. Instead, there’s the idiot criminals:
A man who tried to rob a liquor store with a knife when the guy behind the counter had a huge gun, and then tried to avoid a prison sentence by falling off a four storey building (thinking he’d get clemency for being handicapped)
A dune buggy driving teenage thug who tries to threaten the protagonist, not understanding that criminal lawyers prepare themselves to deal with some criminals too
A State Trooper who keeps trying to get people into court by eating their driving licences, and then arresting them for not having the right documentation
But most importantly, it has vast, barqoue paragraphs of obscenity, as we discuss FBI agents ("He’s a veteran too. A veteran asshole."), judges ("The only day he didn’t commit reversible error was the day he stayed home with the goddamned trots and didn’t shit on anyone but himself for once"), CEOs who don’t answer their phones ("I figured he was probably jerking off or banging a file clerk, and didn’t want to be disturbed, so I let that pass") and of course Teddy Franklin, a car thief "cute as a shithouse rat") and a lengthy discourse on the unfairness of having to share a surname with the Kennedys.
There really isn’t much plot. There’s maybe three sentences of action, in the last chapter, and the rest of the book is an affront to the maxim that one must show, not tell (everything that happens is related in conversation between two or more characters, sometimes years after the actual event) but the dialogue, God, the dialogue.
If you want action, or a depiction of enlightened attitudes, or both, perhaps this isn’t the book for you. If you’ve run out of Elmore Leonard novels and fancy something similar, this will do the trick.