PRINCE OF THIEVES

By Chuck Hogan. Scribner. 364 pp. $25

Chuck Hogan's flawed but powerful third novel is at bottom a portrait of a man and the world that shaped him. The man is bank robber Doug MacRay, and his world is "Charlestown, our one square mile of brick and cobblestone. Neighborhood of Boston, yet lopped off every map of the city like a bastard cropped out of a happy family portrait." Despite the relentless influx of yuppies, Charlestown is still a tough, Irish-American working-class neighborhood, one that, the novel claims, produces more bank robbers per capita than any other such enclave in America. The hero of this novel -- and I believe that is the right word for him -- tough, charming, troubled Doug MacRay, cannot quite escape his roots. Not many popular novels try to transform a second-generation bank robber and ex-convict into a tragic hero, but that seems to be Hogan's intent, and it is what makes his dark, violent Prince of Thieves so uncommonly interesting.

Doug grew up in "the Town," as it is called, without benefit of family. His mother ran away, and his father, an unrepentant, semi-literate criminal, wound up in prison. Doug survived, thanks to foster homes and the parents of friends, and even had a moment of glory as a hockey star who was drafted by the Bruins. But his drinking and hot temper undid him, and he served two prison terms in his twenties. When we meet him, he has been out of prison and sober for two years but is pursuing a criminal career. He is joined by his three childhood friends: explosive Gem, who provides muscle; frog-faced Gloansy, a skilled car thief; and hanger-on Dez, whose job with the phone company is invaluable to their crimes. As the novel begins, the gang is robbing a bank. Everything goes like clockwork, until Gem beats an assistant manager for setting off an alarm and insists on taking the manager hostage when they make their getaway. The manager, pretty young Claire Keesey, is released unharmed, and she remains central to all that follows.

Doug is haunted by Claire: "Somehow . . . he had gotten himself sucked into the mystery of her existence." Meanwhile, young FBI agent Adam Frawley interviews Claire, and he too falls under her spell. Doug, who was masked during the robbery, contrives to meet Claire and soon is taking her out and fantasizing a new life. But even as the bank robber courts his victim, he is planning more crimes. Hogan excels at detailing the sophisticated measures that banks and armored-car companies take to be invulnerable and the inspired means that criminals use to bypass the defenses. A second major crime comes halfway through the novel, and the gang's bold assault on a Boston landmark provides its dramatic climax.

Between crimes, we move to the great strength of the novel: Hogan's portrait of four criminals and their world. Doug is the brains of the gang: He plots robberies the way other ambitious young men plot corporate takeovers. He wants out of Charlestown, but he can never quite resist one last score. He and the others bitterly resent the yuppies and developers who are changing their world. Hogan's sharp, often bawdy dialogue, his scenes of the four friends alternating between affection, suspicion and fury at one another; his sketches of their long-suffering mothers and girlfriends; his glimpse of the old mob chief who lurks in the background -- are all first-rate. Throughout, Doug is struggling to stay sober, and his scenes with his AA sponsor are another highlight of the novel. Beyond that, as we come to understand and like Doug -- for his intelligence, his pain, his loyalty to his friends -- we increasingly wonder if he can escape disaster. With the FBI closing in, either a return to prison or death in a hail of bullets seems his likely fate.

So what is wrong with this gripping, gritty novel about crime and redemption in one of America's great cities? Two things. The love triangle -- bank robber and bank dick both fall for bank manager -- is the book's biggest weakness, for it imposes a big element of unreality on an otherwise highly realistic book. (Of course, that triangle is no doubt the "high concept element" that moved producer Dick Wolf to option the novel.) And while the rather clueless Claire might be sweetly portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow or Naomi Watts in a film, she is a far less interesting character than bad-girl Krista, Gem's sister and Doug's ex-girlfriend, whose anger and pathos enrich every scene she's in. In another misstep, after the story's bloody climax, Hogan closes with a flashback intended to remind us of happier days. It's contrived and doesn't work -- another gimmick -- yet neither of these flaws keeps this from being an impressive novel. It will be compared with Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, which covers much of the same ground. Granting that some readers might find Prince of Thieves more entertaining, Mystic River is the stronger, more serious novel, but Chuck Hogan is nonetheless a fine writer and well worth your time. *

Patrick Anderson's thriller and suspense reviews appear Mondays in Style.