BOSTON -- Politics is a bruising game here on Beacon Hill, and no casual fan can fully appreciate the action without studying its subplots, rivalries and hidden agendas, which never stray too far from the next campaign season. Thus it was that when James Shannon -- the ambitious, 37-year-old attorney general of Massachusetts -- made an unusual public attack on George Keverian, the reform-minded speaker of the House, there was clearly more going on than a simple spat between two Democrats. True aficionados knew that the verbal fisticuffs had to be viewed against the backdrop of a real estate scandal, a botched pay raise and an outcry over ethics. "There's a lot of anger in this building right now," said one State House veteran. "The atmosphere up here is ugly." It all began when state lawmakers, having helped themselves to an $11,000 pay raise to $41,000, had it unceremoniously yanked away by the voters in a November referendum. Their reputation as gluttonous fat cats was further enhanced with revelations about 75 State Street, an ultramodern office building, in the Boston Globe. The newspaper revealed that Senate President William Bulger, an old-school South Boston pol who, like many of his colleagues, practices law on the side, had received a mysterious $240,000 payment from a close associate, Thomas Finnerty. The money had come to Finnerty from 75 State Street developer Harold Brown, who was then under indictment for bribery. Brown in turn charged that Finnerty had extorted the money from him by threatening to use his influence with Bulger to block the project. All eyes soon turned to Shannon, who was criticized for refusing to investigate the Bulger deal on grounds it had already been reviewed by federal authorities. Fairly or unfairly, this helped foster an impression of Shannon -- an inexperienced lawyer and former three-term congressman who won the attorney general's office in 1986 -- as a lightweight reluctant to take on the Senate's most powerful Democrat. Bulger and Finnerty were cleared late last month by federal prosecutors. The two men have maintained that the payment was actually a loan to Bulger as an advance on a $267,000 legal fee for unrelated work. But such hefty fees for a senator, even if perfectly legal, provided an opportunity that Shannon could not resist. Declaring that the political system "stinks," he proposed a bill to bar legislators from earning more than $40,000 a year in outside income. "The fact that you have people in high public office . . . who are getting rich on the side has a terrible effect on the public perception of government," Shannon, a gregarious Irishman with a boyish face, said in an interview in his 20th-floor office. Regardless of the facts in the 75 State Street brouhaha, he said, "The appearance was lousy." Reaction to Shannon's move was equally lousy under the golden dome of the State House, where at least four lawyer-legislators earn more than $100,000 a year in private practice. Among most lawmakers, Shannon, who is up for reelection next year, was viewed as trying to repair his image at their expense. "Virtually everyone saw that as the most gratuitous jumping on the bandwagon," said political consultant Michael Goldman. "Jim Shannon is perceived to be a Tip O'Neill, insider kind of guy. For him to stand up and say he's a reformer has struck the wrong chord." Such criticism was mild compared to what happened next. State Rep. Marjorie Clapprood, who says she is often stereotyped as "a left-wing, bra-burning, feminist pinko," wanted to shake loose some extra money for social programs. Suddenly she had a fat target. The House eagerly approved Clapprood's amendment to slice $1.9 million from Shannon's budget, although Speaker Keverian and other Democratic leaders voted against it. Shannon was livid. He accused Keverian of having secretly orchestrated the budget cut. And he supplied a motive: Keverian, he said, was still unhappy over Shannon's lengthy investigation of three of his former aides, who were recently indicted for stealing money and equipment from the state. Keverian, a large, earnest man who ousted his autocratic predecessor and is proud of his integrity, was stunned. He called the charges "absurd and untrue." He said he was "personally hurt" that Shannon had "chosen to harm my reputation in order to advance his." As for the probe of his former aides, Keverian said, it was he who had uncovered the scheme and referred it for investigation, and he had expressed unhappiness only with the slow pace of Shannon's inquiry. Keverian demanded an apology. Shannon stood his ground. While offering no proof that Keverian had conspired to cut his budget, he said: "These sorts of things don't happen unless the leadership wants them to happen . . . . He is playing a heavy-handed kind of game." Perhaps the most telling response came from Clapprood -- a tall, fast-talking woman with frosted hair and four-inch heels -- who had been Shannon's friend and supporter. She called his charges "absolutely bizarre, totally groundless and, it seems to me, a bit paranoid . . . a gross error in judgment . . . inexplicably insensitive . . . I had thought much more highly of him." Clapprood, who is weighing a run for lieutenant governor next year, insisted that she offered the amendment on her own. Shannon was "lashing out," she said, because he "was still reeling from a number of unfavorable editorials and stories. He felt the need for some bravado and perhaps wanted to portray himself as David going after Goliath." To the attorney general, however, it is a simple case of retaliation, with lawmakers using Clapprood's amendment as "a convenient excuse to give me a shot." Shannon dismisses her charge that he wastes $1.9 million a year on consultants, saying the money is earmarked for stenographers, process-servers and expert witnesses in regulatory hearings. Clapprood, in turn, calls this "a very clever shell game," saying that consulting expenses in Shannon's office (including $1,200 for a Shannon speechwriter) have jumped 300 percent in four years. While such charges fill the air, Shannon's detractors are having a field day. "He's kind of a sweet-talking, cynical phony with no depth and no commitment to anything but his own advancement," said Boston Phoenix editor Richard Gaines, a longtime Shannon critic. In another bit of Boston beanball, news recently surfaced that Clapprood has an outstanding arrest warrant for not paying a four-year-old, $25 traffic ticket. The Phoenix reported that a police officer with close political ties to Shannon pulled the information out of the police computer and mailed it to the Boston Herald. Shannon called the allegation unworthy of comment. For all the bad blood on Beacon Hill, Shannon's attacks may yet prove a winner with the public. In what sounds like a 1990 campaign theme, Shannon boasted that he scrapes by on his public salary (which the voters cut from $75,000 to $65,000), although he could legally practice law on the side. The era when prosecutors and even judges here did double duty for private clients is over, he says, even if the legislature hasn't caught on. After the House cut his budget, Shannon said: "I had three options. I could sit in this office and lick my wounds. I could try to make some kind of deal with someone to get the money back. Or I could let the public know what was going on. "The speaker was quoted on television as saying he thought I'd come crawling back," Shannon said. He paused and looked out the window at the sprawling Boston skyline. "And I don't crawl," he said with a chuckle.