Defending Billy Ryan

Defending Billy Ryan



The Pequod Review:

Defending Billy Ryan is George V. Higgins’s twenty-first novel, and the third featuring the aging defense attorney Jerry Kennedy. The book’s plot is ok (Kennedy defends a public works commissioner who appears to be guilty of corruption) but Higgins writes exceptional dialogue and builds his story around intelligent observations drawn from his own career as a U.S. attorney. Here for example he describes the status of judges in the courtroom:

It is necessary for me here to explain some things about people, particularly men, who have become judges. This is because people like me who have to deal with them on a regular basis are able to do so only if we are aware of the change that has taken place in their earthly status, maybe in their eventual celestial one as well. In their own minds, that is. They take the same rattletrap elevators to their courtrooms that we bad guys and mouthpieces take, but not in the same cars or at the same times. They ride by themselves. After parking their cars not in pricey lots or garages some cold and rainy distance from the courthouse, but in the free spaces downstairs that they ordered reserved for their use. They spend their days seated in the same seedy courtrooms where their jurors sit, and they too are subject to chill draughts and wet heat, but they look down from their chairs on the rest of us. They declare the mid-morning recesses when they, not the rest of us, have processed the morning coffee and have to go to the bathroom. They also replenish both the fluid and solid calories, drinking more coffee and having the odd doughnut, just as we do, and neither one of those refreshments is any better or worse than the ones we ingest. But their coffee and doughnuts are brought to them in their chambers; we lawyers and clients must fetch our own and don't have any chambers, so we stand around munching and swallowing out in the hall. The commonplace is that a judge is a lawyer who once knew a governor, and that's right as far as it goes. The rest of reality is the past tense; a judge is a person who used to be a lawyer, and no one had better forget it.

Here he describes the intricacies of pre-trial motions:

My only substantial purpose in that room that first court day of Billy's was to file a motion for a bill of particulars. I had other motions – bail and that sort of thing – but I didn't expect the AG's office to resist them; for the particulars I'd have to give some reasons, and Mike Dunn or his minion would most likely make a fuss. 

For the uninitiated: the bill of particulars is what you ask for when the prosecutor has been sensible and held down the indictment to the fewest possible words, thus limiting his exposure to its preemptory dismissal for failure to state an offense, while at the same time committing himself to proving no more facts than the minimum required. If the evidence is going to show that your client killed another fellow with a machine-gun, which is hard to do by accident, your crafty prosecutor is going to allege that your client did assault and beat the victim by means of a 45 caliber Thompson submachine gun (or Mac 10, or Uzi, or AK47), and by said assault and battery did kill and murder him. It's up to you to ask exactly where they say he did it; what time of day or night; who saw it, if anybody did; and if the commonwealth has any evidence at all as to why on earth your client would get it into his fool head to blow another guy's head off. 

In other words, you’re doing the best you can to hem in your adversary. But he knows this, so you'd better be careful when you put those questions; more than one shrewd prosecutor has taken an opening provided by the defendant's motion for a bill of particulars and used it to allege a whole mess of gory detail that he never would’ve dared to put in the indictment, thus not only prejudicing prospective jurors – who always say, when trial comes, they know nothing of the case though they “read something about it” – and making sure that when the actual jurors are impaneled, they will hear not only the murder charge, but the prosecutor’s thoughtful gloss that the homicide was committed in “the usual gangland fashion.” The stuff in the particulars that you ask for later on gets read to the jury. 

Michael Connelly is very good at this too, but Higgins takes it to a more detailed level. Meanwhile, Higgins also has excellent characterization: 

She had a nice voice. Not one of those sultry instruments that promises gardens of smutty earthly delights; just a real, nice voice.

George Higgins was an outstanding writer (and not just a crime writer) who never received the acclaim or popularity he deserved. Defending Billy Ryan is yet another highly intelligent novel.