SWAN BOATS AT FOUR by George V. Higgins


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Taking a holiday from his usual diet of lowlife Boston cops and crooks (Bomber's Law, 1993, etc.), Higgins books passage on the luxury liner America, where the upscale cast talks exactly like the downscale Higgins regulars back home. Racked with anxiety over the federal examiners baying at his recession-ridden Pilot Hill Bank and Trust, David Carroll allows his wife Frances to sweep him off for a week in London and on the recommissioned America's ""re-maiden voyage,"" as America staffer (and David's former mistress) Melissa Murray describes it. Frances knows all about Melissa, and thinks she's going into the trip with her eyes wide open; but she doesn't know that a confidence man aboard the ship, presumably retired attorney Burton Rutledge, has picked her and her husband as marks. Promptly at dinner the first night out, Rutledge presents himself at the Carrolls' table; the action thereafter, as you'd expect from Higgins, unfolds almost entirely over a series of mealtime conversations among the Carrolls and Rutledge -- a virtuoso series of trios eventually reduced to duets by the Melissa'd absence of David. Even among Higgins's gallery of talkers, Rutledge is one silver-tongued sharpie: His ceremonious tales of his old acquaintance, dilettante Eldred Motley, and the vicissitudes of Amy Neville Motley Rutledge, their mutual wife, are worth the transatlantic tariff. Rutledge is so peerlessly garrulous, in fact, that the drama of the tale arises, la Exterminating Angel, from your wondering whether the Carrolls are going to make it through their next rich dessert, or all the way to New York, without hearing Rutledge's pitch, or whether they'll end up eternally trapped, like the Flying Dutchman, mid-ocean and pre-fleecing. Have no fear: Higgins, obviously seeing the Statue of Liberty looming on the horizon, settles everything with a few brisk strokes, clearing the way for a peremptory ending but a satisfyingly bleak final tableau.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1995
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt