Friday, 19 November 2010


I picked up a copy of The Mandeville Talent in a charity shop recently. It's out of print, my original copy is in storage somewhere, but it was one of my favourites among George Higgins' novels, and I wrote about it recently, from memory, in my chapter on Higgins' and Robert B Parker's Boston for Maxim Jakubowski's Following The Detectives. I wanted to re-read the book, almost 20 years after it was originally published in 1991, to see how accurate my memory had been but also to gauge just how much two decades might have changed my appreciation of Higgins.

Turns out I had remembered the book well, and that it holds up rather better than I thought it might. The novel tells the story of Joe Corey, a up-and-coming New York mergers and acquisitions lawyer, whose wife takes a job as a professor at Mount Holyoke, up in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, near the town of Shropshire where her grandfather, James Mandeville, president of the local bank, was murdered just before Christmas 23 years earlier. Dissatisfied with his current life, Joe gets drawn into the unsolved crime, made to look like a suicide, and begins to investigate.

The novel tells two stories. One is the story of the crime, and the other is the story of how life actually works in the world where society still functions in terms of people. This was Mandeville's talent, to be the unprepossessing big-shot in his small town. Corey's volunteer efforts on the case impress a local DA, who puts him on to a retired investigator, Baldo Iannuci, who begins to take him through the few clues buried in the minutiae of the case. Meanwhile, Baldo initates Corey into the way a small town works, the give and take that makes it function. The two lessons interweave, of course, and it is through small things dropped casually into coversation, little facts, seemingly unimportant, that are the result of long-developed relationships, that Baldo and Joe begin to get close to the truth.

There is an element of the too-pat here, as one or two recollections come just too easily or coveniently, and occasionally you wish the voices telling the story were more distinctly individual. But meanwhile, Joe is learning why liquor store owners offer some customers discounts, and how real estate agents behave with their customers. 'The first principle,' Baldo says, ' that people live up to your expectations. If you let them know you expect them to hammer you, well, they won't disappoint you--they'll do it.' It is a rough principle, but a fair one if you're treating people with respect.

Which of course is what Jim Mandeville never figured on. He had taken a loan to buy property; he'd guessed right and now his property was worth far more than the loan. In his world that wouldn't change the game. But for the man from whom he'd borrowed the money, the game was played differently, and it did change. This is also the game Joe Corey discovers he is leaving behind. Higgins ties all the ends together smartly, his two strands weaving together perfectly, and you almost expect 'here endeth the lesson' to pop up somewhere.

The reason I wondered how The Mandeville Talent would hold up was the nature of the changes we've seen in our world since then, and the way the zero-sum game of gangsters, merchant bankers and merger and acquisition lawyers has penetrated right down to small town America. Higgins left Boston for this story partly because he'd investigated a similar small town murder, but more importantly because he wanted to explain society's workings at the micro level. I think he saw the world changing quickly, and needed distance from the Hub, and the State House, and bigger time politics, to say what he wanted to say. Ten years later he would revisit western Mass, in A Change Of Gravity, by which time his recounting of local politics was already elegaic. Higgins knew that the give and take of life wasn't always, strictly speaking, legal, or in the wider sense, fair, but it followed certain rules, it made a certain sense, and things worked reasonably well. I wish I could say the same now.


George said...

I just picked up a copy of MANDEVILLE TALENT in a Salvation Army thrift story a week ago. Now, I need to read it after reading your fine review.

Michael Carlson said...

You wont be disappointed!

Ruzz said...

Just ordered it too - isn't Amazon/Abebooks wonderful. Will look forward to it distracting me from the 'Skins performance this weekend.