Brief Reviews

The last novel of the late George V. Higgins shows no hint of failing skill or mellowing temper. The dialogue is as raffishly eloquent as ever, the action as disconcerting to the lawfully minded, and the author's underlying attitude what it has regularly been -- a plague on all your houses. The story is densely packed with characters whose positions are initially murky and with events that display no immediate connections, leading the reader through a labyrinth of guesswork in pursuit of a plot that does not, in a standard sense, exist. Higgins is describing the business of a Boston racketeer and the system by which it operates -- a network of people who do what they are told (frequently with good humor and no moral qualms), plus a long-established détente with federal law officers. Progress is not what the boss wants. If serious violence becomes necessary, he takes personal action. An assassination described meticulously, move by precise move, is bone-chilling in its patient efficiency. Questions of law and justice, as discussed by the characters, become almost equally unnerving. Higgins was a brilliantly clever, savagely bitter observer of society. His death is a severe loss.

Mr. Goff is a professor of entomology at the University of Hawaii. He is also a specialist in determining time of death by examination of the type and condition of insects battening on a corpse. Forensic entomology is not a pretty job, and is frequently so unpleasant that Mr. Goff's helpers profess illness and stay at home. The author does his best to keep nausea to a minimum -- with limited success, given his materials. The subject is interesting, however, because it describes a technique seldom mentioned in public and often of great importance in a criminal investigation.

Mr. Judah is a journalist who has observed Balkan affairs for ten years. His report on Kosovo begins with medieval history and legend, containing less of the former than of the latter. As he points out, "In Kosovo, history is war by other means."Outside observers reported more or less objectively on Kosovo and its neighbors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their reports were of constant quarrels and hostilities. Suppressed during Tito's regime, these have now resurfaced, as virulent and brutal as they were centuries ago. Mr. Judah describes events in modern Kosovo in thorough detail and with a serious attempt at fairness to all parties. His book will be of great value to anyone who wishes to know exactly what has been done, and when, and by whom, during the current upheaval. Readers with a less profound concern are likely to fall back on the simple, pessimistic conclusion that peaceful compromise has never been known in Kosovo and never will be.

Mr. MacLeod's narrator, a prosperous dentist, gradually reveals the history of the MacDonald family in Canada. Calum Ruadh MacDonald, with twelve children, a son-in-law, and a devoted dog, arrived on Cape Breton Island in 1779, and established a Gaelic-speaking tribe that has survived and expanded without ever forgetting its roots. Events shift from past to present, and from Atlantic coast to inland mining, with easy grace and believability. The story is an affirmation of all that has gone before -- kinship, loyalty, and the continuity of tradition, celebrated without sentimentality. Mr. MacLeod is an admirable writer.

Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe was a "Civil War hero, pioneering balloonist, renowned inventor, promoter, and showman, known nationwide as the man who had created the grandest, most astonishing, most popular tourist attraction in turn-of-the-century southern California."He made a fortune that established him among the millionaires of Pasadena, and lost it in the aftermath of the panic of 1893. The family style was not seriously cramped, because his son had married solid, conventional old money, and his granddaughter, Florence, grew up with all the benefits of maids and butlers. The girl was an echo of old Thaddeus -- a bold, ingenious, outspoken tomboy, addicted to horses, dogs, practical jokes, and flamboyant conduct. Her mother thought matrimony would reform her, and literally arranged a match with a somewhat older man who was handsome, intelligent, and highly respected in Pasadena. He was also, of all things, an Episcopal clergyman. Florence soon fled the rectory. She proceeded from early Hollywood horse operas arranged by equestrian friends to Roaring Twenties parties on her family inheritance to flying lessons and work with Howard Hughes on Hell's Angels. She acquired the nickname Pancho on a hobo trek through Mexico, and it stuck. She was admired for nerve, skill, and a notably foul mouth. She established a combination flying and riding resort next to the outpost that developed into Edwards Air Force Base. As the base expanded, the government proposed to take her property by eminent domain. Pancho fought, and aquired a taste for acting as her own attorney. Litigation became a habit. Financial problems multiplied. She died in squalor in a shack full of dogs -- probably murdered, although the authorities did nothing about it. In summary, her life seems willful folly. Actually it was a fine example of what a determined woman could accomplish by going her own way with no fear of possible consequences. It was certainly not dull, and Ms. Kessler has done it justice.

Phoebe-Lou Adams has written her Atlantic book column, under a variety of titles, since 1952.

Illustration by David Navascues.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Brief Reviews - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 117-118.