Sunday, February 07, 2016

Stick With The Crooks, Jerry-George V. Higgins’ Sandra Nichols Found Dead

Stick With The Crooks, Jerry-George V. Higgins’ Sandra Nichols Found Dead

Book Review   

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman


Sandra Nichols Found Dead, George V. Higgins, 1996


Recently I have been on a crime novelist George V. Higgins tear as a result of re-reading his classic first and I believe still his best crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (and re-watched as well as a result of that read the film adaptation starring Robert Mitchum as Eddie). As is my wont when I get on a tear on an author I have been picking off his later work although in no particular order. Higgins certainly had an ear, a close ear, for dialogue, especially down in the streets dialogue gained from his growing up working-class town of Brockton where in the old days he would have found plenty of corner boys in the old Irish or Italian streets and from his having been a federal government prosecutor. So Higgins has tackled all kinds of criminal situations, murder, extortion, leg-breaking, money laundering, you name in the rough crime categories and has tackled white collar crime, you know, taking bribes, dishing out contracts for a cut, embezzlement, the whole litany of governmental and private company crimes. Along the way there seems to have been three main story lines that Higgins’ work can be grouped around. Stories about the classic street hoods like Eddie, corrupt government officials like Billy Ryan, and those amorphous tales like the one in the book currently under review, Sandra Nichols Found Dead, involving, for lack of a better term, private citizen crimes, rough or white. I have mentioned previously that I believe that the prolific Higgins had his best days when he took on the street hoods, brought them to life, and the contrast to that in this book makes that case stronger in my mind.

Higgins starts off here with a simple premise, or maybe a couple. Not every murder, done in passion or by design, gets solved in this wicked old world and taking a leaf from old F. Scott Fitzgerald the rich, the very rich that we don’t even see, are very different from you and me. They are as likely as not to get away, one way or the other, with murder, murder most foul. Here the subject named in the title has been found murdered, brutally murdered and dumped to be found several months later. If she had been an ordinary citizen, or had not married a very rich man, Peter Wade, Sandra would have, given her checkered history of marriages, affairs, and “working the streets,” been chalked up as a lost cause. As usual the police and District Attorney work the case as best they can but then not finding enough clues to build an airtight case and with the case leading nowhere they put the thing in the “cold case” files.        

But this is where Sandra not being an ordinary citizen and having signed a pre-nuptial agreement with Wade to benefit her three emotionally battered and bruised kids (a big part of that as a result of her own behavior by the way) if she and Peter were divorced or something else happened to her. Smart woman in that regard. After Sandra is found in some desolate swamp the case takes a turn for the better when one of the DAs investigators, a plugger, keeps looking for the murderer and has a damn good idea of who did it, or ordered it done, Wade. The case also takes a turn for the better when the probate judge in the case, a law school classmate of recurring Higgins character, Attorney Jerry Kennedy, is assigned the case by him and will not take no for an answer. Now Kennedy is strictly a criminal lawyer, a guy who got Billy Ryan the public official grafter off without working up a sweat, but this probate stuff acting on behalf of the three children seems beyond his expertise. Worse, even that plugger investigator knew that although murder was in the air, knew the nuts and bolts of how it was done, knew as well that Wade was not going to take the fall for murder one since no way could the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.                

Kennedy is no quitter though and so he plans his strategy as an end around, make Wade pay like he should under that pre-nuptial agreement for the kids’ education and their pain and suffering, about three million he thought would square things. Kennedy spends the bulk of the novel proving to his own satisfaction that Wade is the one who ordered the murder of his wife once he tired of her and wanted to move on to the next best thing and set up the framework where Wade would be forced to pay out. And he does in the end. The problem for me with this plot-line though is that I could not suspend my disbelief long enough to figure out why the mostly absent and hence not fully sketched out by Higgins Wade felt he needed to order the “hit” on Sandra when forking out the  dough would have worked just as well. Moreover unlike the tight narrative in a work like Coyle this one has way too much sidebar talk about camera clubs, Kennedy’s unhappy marriage, the history of private schools and lots more, not remotely relevant to the case. I think Higgins bulked this one up when he too found the plot-line rather thin. Enough said.   

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