Jerry (Digger) Doherty, whom admirers of George V. Higgins' crime novels will recall as the antiheroic protagonist of "The Digger's Game," does not make his appearance in "The Patriot Game" until the final pages. But he is a presence throughout, a man whose fate motivates much of the action in Higgins' characteristically byzantine plot; and when he does come on stage, it is to give the novel a concluding twist that is considerably more plausible than some of what has preceded it.
"The Patriot Game" finds Higgins in a familiar setting and exploring familiar themes. This is not a knock. Like John D. MacDonald, Higgins has found something that he does well, and after exploratory adventures in other genres (most notably and lamentably, in Higgins' case, two attempts at the "Washington novel"), he seems to have decided to stick with it--the dirty little world of small-time crime in and about Boston, a culture and a city that Higgins renders with impressive verisimilitude. Those who have no taste for this world as he portrays it will complain that he is repeating himself; those who enjoy his work, as I do, will be pleased to make another visit to old haunts.
The title of the novel is a veiled reference to the dangerous games played by some Irish-Americans on behalf of the IRA. A federal agent named Pete Riordan has been dispatched to Boston to track down a man believed to be running guns to the IRA, "a man I can't recognize, whose name I don't know, and whose whereabouts are just as unknown to us now as they were when I went galloping off to California." He has reason to believe that there is a connection between the IRA and the strange case of a fellow named Magro, who is in prison for murder but may soon be released years ahead of time. Magro, as Riordan characterizes him, is a bad apple:
"He's good at cutting chain-link fences and getting doors open, and he's been around long enough so he knows where they store the stuff that people want. He's good enough so he never got caught at it, either. It was only when he branched out into shooting a guy that the cops grabbed him and put him away. Magro's a thief, and he's a capable one. Doesn't matter to him what he steals, especially if being willing to steal something that somebody really wants will get him sprung from a murder rap eight years early."
But Magro is more than a suspected IRA mercenary. He is in prison as a result of events that may or may not have involved Digger Doherty, the bar owner and occasional crook whose brother, Bishop Paul Doherty of the Roman Catholic Church, is Riordan's close friend. The bishop fears that if Magro is released, Digger will be the victim of a retaliatory murder, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. This gives Riordan an added incentive to crack the case; and the relationship between the two brothers provides the novel's climax, one that is in equal measures unexpected and convincing.
It also adds to the complexities of a plot that is labyrinthine to begin with; but plot is not and never has been Higgins' chief business. The manner and mores of the law and those who violate it are what most interest him, and what give his novels their rich texture. In "The Patriot Game" he lavishes his attention on the folk, honest and otherwise, who maneuver in the state capital and the legislature and the prison system, people fixing deals and peddling influence and generally messing things up. Higgins has an unsparing eye for the meretricious and a particular distaste for the do-gooder who hasn't the foggiest understanding of the system he so zealously seeks to reform. There is, for example, Fred Mayes, a psychology PhD who has been attached to the prison system as a sop to the reformers and who talks psychobabble:
" . . . the best we can do is try to encourage them to rehabilitate themselves by making them see that exemplary behavior, no fights and no attacks on guards, can have some effect on what happens to them, within a time frame that means something to them, one with sufficiently limited, foreshortened parameters within their conceptual grasp."
If Higgins has a sharp eye for a phony, he also has a weak spot for machismo. Pete Riordan, though a far from disagreeable protagonist, is almost a caricature of macho and its paraphernalia, what with his scars and his shades and his boots and his tough-talking, golden-hearted lady friend, with her equally tough-talking teen-aged daughter. Fact is, everybody talks tough in a Higgins novel and everybody talks pretty much alike, in a circumlocutory style that can be uproarious at its best and maddening at its worst; there is some of both in "The Patriot Game."
It is not a novel that is likely to bring many new readers to Higgins, but it is going to make his regulars happy. I am one of them, and you can take my word for it.