Snappy dialogue enriches Higgins' tale

January 11, 1994|By Jocelyn McClurg | Jocelyn McClurg,Hartford Courant

Like David Mamet, George V. Higgins has an unerring ear fo the way men talk to men.

When the men in question are cops, and crooks, the talk can get very salty, very expansive and very funny indeed.

A good 98 percent of "Bomber's Law" is dialogue -- or, more accurately, exchanges of long bob-and-weave monologues. Soliloquies, really. Mr. Higgins' characters are Hamlets of the street, pontificating in Boston vernacular. Each speech is like a dTC jazz riff that seems improvised, but Mr. Higgins knows exactly where he's going.

His dramatic skills sneak up on you, amid all the chatter. A compelling plot, fat with surprise, is wrapped deliciously inside the streetwise bons mots.

The talk begins with a conversation -- mostly one-sided -- between two policemen, Bob Brennan and Harry Dell'Appa, who are on a stakeout. It quickly becomes apparent that these two detective sergeants despise each other, for slights unknown. This is Mr. Higgins' method: to dribble out information to the reader, drip by tantalizing drip. He hooks you on two levels -- the dazzling speechifying keeps you listening, and the missing pieces keep you guessing.

Here's what we learn. Harry, a 35ish, college-educated cop, is back in Boston after a year's banishment to boring, bucolic Northampton as punishment for a memo he wrote that angered some superior. Harry is sitting in Brennan's car because he is about to take over Brennan's assignment -- tailing a mob hit man named Short Joey Mossi.

To Harry and his lieutenant, Brian Dennison, the pieces don't add up. The cops know that Joey has knocked off 11 unsavory criminal types. But Brennan, who's been watching Joey for quite some time, has been unable, or unwilling, to come up with any evidence the cops could use to indict him. How come?

Brennan, close to retirement, has a chip on his shoulder about young hotshots like Harry. Mr. Higgins' portrait of bitter old Bob is masterful. The whole concept of political correctness has passed Bob by. This guy revels in spewing offensive but astute theories about everything from the money-grubbers who brought the Tall Ships into Boston to the yuppie pretensions of his sister-in-law. And he knows how to make Harry squirm.

The other primo talker in "Bomber's Law" is Dennison, Harry's boss. His riffs on his late mother-in-law, who won the Lottery and saddled him and his wife with a back-breaking mortgage, are priceless.

Then there are the conversations between Harry and his wife, Gayle, the clinical psychologist, which become increasingly tense and finally explode in anger. There's the brilliant interrogation scene, in which Harry puts the squeeze on a small-time hood named Ernie, who doesn't even realize he holds the key to the mystery of Brennan. And Harry has a few secrets of his own.

Is there anybody who better uses dialogue to reveal character than Mr. Higgins? Harry on Brennan: "Bob Brennan can confuse obfuscation when he wants; he could murk up an enigma."

Mr. Higgins cares about what makes people tick, cops and criminals especially. Beneath it all, even crusty cops want to know why people break the law. There's Bomber's Law, stated by Dennison's predecessor, the recently retired Bomber Lawrence, which offers a simple, cynical explanation for just about all human behavior: "We did it for the money."

Mr. Higgins has been delineating the delicate dance of machismo between cops and hoods and cops and cops since 1972's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." "Bomber's Law" proves once again that nobody does it with more flair.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Bomber's Law"

Author: George V. Higgins

Publisher: Henry Holt

+!Length, price: 296 pages, $22.50

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