Monday, May 7, 2007

Jack Duggan's Law

by George V. Higgins

This was kick-ass. A story about a hard-boiled lawyer fergawdsake. Snappy, witty dialog that helped me understand what the Wikipedia article meant when it related Higgins's notion that dialog must be representative, rather than literal. I doubt real people would ever talk to each other the way Higgins's characters do, but (and here's a secret) the point of fiction just might be to portray things that aren't real. It's possible to be "made-up" and "realistic" at the same time; "Duggan's Law" proves that "interesting" fits in with those other two.

I did lose track of who some of the characters were, but I always do that when there are more than four character and/or more than two plot threads. Still, I loved the noir of it all, and it was refreshing for a noir to be set outside of L.A. and Manhattan. Sad to learn that Higgins is dead, but I want to read more of his stuff. It has energy. Not only do things happen, they happen fast, which I'm starting to realize is a key ingredient of the stories I like best. Not much musing, contemplation, or birds standing around on one leg. Action! That's it! Action!

Probably not the formula for everyone, but it works for me.

7 comments:

liz said...

Loved the beginning, but it petered out. The whole conversation between his client and the judge could have been a LOT shorter, "Where'd you get the money [for the first item he asked about]?" "My bank account." "How much in that bank account?" and there you go.

Steve said...

That's about the weakest passage in the story, I'd agree. I think maybe it is an example of Higgins overdoing his thing about dialog. He has a number of such exchanges where one person is verbally leading another by the nose, but it works best when the reader doesn't reach the destination first.

Jim said...

As a first statement, I'd just like to say I quite enjoyed this story. I thought the descriptions worked well, and the dialog was fun to read. So all comments below exist within that overall context of finding this a fun read.

Drilling down, I agree with Liz's comment that the opening was the strongest, and it didn't fully maintain that intensity. As mentioned, a couple of the exchanges--like the one mentioned between the client and the judge--went on a bit long. And I had mixed feelings about some of the scenes and POV shifts. I felt the story lost a bit of the reader identification pulling me into Jack Duggan's character--which was the most distinctive and interesting character in the story--as it bounced between different characters and POVs. I understand why the story needed Duggan's client's POV to get out certain facts about the murder and his eventual death, but I'm not convinced adding the ADA's POV in that one section added more than it detracted.

That said, while at times it did muddy the focus, the non-standard plotting did give the piece a cool feel. Instead of following Duggan's defense of one client through to a conclusive courtroom showdown, as one might expect in a traditionally plotted story, his client is killed through events having nothing to do with Duggan, and which Duggan does nothing to follow up on. The rapist Duggan is shown in court with early on never shows up again. And the story ends with Duggan's defense of a cop that had only shown up in one previous scene. These shifts in storyline, between multiple cases, shifted the focus away from a particular defense, and towards Duggan as a defense attorney in general. I think that could easily have massively failed, but I felt Higgins pulled it off really well in this story.

One other point--I found the sentences quite intriguing. There were a lot of simple and compound sentences, one after another, with comparitively few dependent clauses. At times, it felt a touch mannered to me, but overall I thought it worked. So I tried to figure out how the prose could work, with far less sentence variety than we are normally used to. I've come up with a few thoughts. First, obviously, the simple, stark sentences do fit the noir genre. Beyond that, I think Higgins succeeded because he did introduce more complext sentences at points. Finally, and I think this is really key, his word choices were just so sharp and precise. Those strong word choices inspire reader confidence, and so the more repetitive sentence structure becomes part of that effective voice, rather than feeling--as it would if the word choices were less compelling--like a mistake on the writer's part.

liz said...

I think the POV shifts would have worked well in a novel, but didn't work well in the length constraints of a short story. But I LOVED the scene at the gas station.

Steve said...

Jim, you've detected a detachment Duggan had from the facts that would ordinarily draw a character into events. That's helpful to understanding the reason the story works, I think, because it points up a difference between this protag and most (and also helps to flesh out what "hard-boiled lawyer" is).

I also like (and agree with) your take on the sentence-structure. Mostly short, direct statements make this a hit-me-like-the-hot-kiss-at-the-end-of-a -fast-punch kind of tale. I like that kind of writing. You mention that Higgins includes a few complex sentences at points, but I wonder if maybe what he was after was "softer" prose. Chandler had a fondness for dropping very gentle sentences right in the middle of his brass-knuckled narrative. (Example: As he describes one detective mostly in terms of his bulk and brawn, he ends surprisingly with, "He had a rather sensitive mouth.")

I agree this was likely not a mistake. And it is a worthwhile thing to comment upon about a mug, imho, because this is what we're about: what made the story sell.

Steve said...

Liz, _Yes_, the gas-station scene was a gripper! I think that's one of the longest narrative hooks I've seen, but it took me in and became the reason I finished reading the story. To me, it was the best example in the piece of Higgins's notions regarding dialog as "representative." Your take on the scene with the judge shows how that can go wrong, but I so liked the gas-station bit that I was willing to read beyond the courtroom part, just because it might get good again.

Anonymous said...

very enjoyable story...so much that I had to go search on the internet for comments!