JERRY KENNEDY, A BOSTON Irish criminal defense lawyer, wants to spend August on the beach with his wife and daughter, but his vacation keeps getting interrupted by clients with problems.

For example, Cadillac Teddy Franklin, a car thief, is being harrassed by a malcontent police officer who, it seems, has eaten Teddy's driver's license. For dessert, he ate Teddy's wife's auto registration. How is Kennedy going to stop this uncouth cop and get Teddy back to stealing cars, where he belongs? And what's he going to do about David French, a dumb mechanic? Can Kennedy extricate him from a sinister drug-smuggling business before the trigger-happy federal agents close in? And how is Kennedy going to handle his daughter's poor girl friend? She gotten herself pregnant by a dangerous psychopath, who's now threatening Kennedy's daughter. And then there's Emerson Taylor, a rich Bostonians who has made the mistake of asking a cop to commit unnatural acts. As these cases unfold, they interconnected in unusual and entertaining ways, which is part of the fun in Kennedy for the Defense , George V. Higgins' full-scale, affectionate portrait of a nuts-and-bolts criminal lawyer at work.

Higgins presents Kennedy and his clients through a series of stitched-together monologues, in which characters mediate on events that take place off-stage. Because the characters ruminate instead of react, there is never much tension in the novel. Compare Kennedy to a novel by Ross Macdonald, another writer who relies on dialogue extensively. Macdonald's dialogue gets its energy from speakers who are trying to hide something, often their own violence. Higgins' characters, like friendly acquaintances in a bar, just want us to listen to them talk about their problems. Yet some of what is lost in the way of tension is gained in the careful depiction of character. In a Macdonald novel we never really have time to get to know the characters. They always kill themselves, or are murdered, just when we're beginning to understand them. Higgins gives us all the time in the world. He tells us everything we need to know about lawyer Kennedy, including exactly how to get to his office.

The picture of Kennedy that emerges is sometimes depressing, but always interesting. If you still view the criminal lawyer as a gunslinger flying off in a Lear jet to defend the weak and the innocent, this book will dispel your illusions. For the most part, Kennedy functions much as an insurance claims adjuster, helping to expedite matters when an unfortunate accident has occurred -- which is to say, when a professional criminal has been apprehended by the police. It is not Kennedy's task to prove guilt or innocence. (He never goes to court.) Everyone knows, for example, that Teddy Franklin makes his living stealing Cadillac automobiles. And if Franklin is caught, the amount of time he'll have to serve is well understood, so there isn't much negotiation in the way of plea-bargining either. But someone has to speed things along, insuring that Franklin makes bail and is properly processed. In the world of Jerry Kennedy, criminal law is routine, matter-of-fact, and thoroughly institutionalized. One senses that the next logical step is to license all professional criminals and tax them, eliminating the concept of crime entirely.

Jerry Kennedy ponders the meaning of his role primarily because his wife and daughter keep asking nagging questions. Is it really right to make your living from people who steal cars and pimp? Sure, the Constitution says everyone is entitled to a lawyer, and someone has to handle the defense. But is expediting matters really defending? Kennedy answers these questios by comparing his work to that of of a real-estate agent: "When you sell a house to somebody, do you make sure he's paying for it with clean money? Trace it back to the family fortune and make sure none of it was earned in the slave trade? No, you don't. You sell the guy the house and take your commission, which is what you should do. If he got the down payment by cheating on his taxes, that's his worry, not yours."

"It's not the same thing," Jerry's wife who is a real-estate agent retorts, and she's right. The real-estate agent doesn't know how his clients got their money and lacks the means to find out. And besides, its not his job to police the country, whereas in theory every lawyer serves two masters, his client and the greater good of society.

If these questions are never addressed directly (Higgins has given Kennedy the maddening habit of wisecracking whenever he's called upon to think), at least they are raised.