The last days of Bernie Morgan, Speaker of the Massachusetts State House some years back--when politics were more unabashedly, cheerfully corrupt and when (so it seems) absolutely everybody spoke in long, colorful, aria-like chunks of Higgins-style vernacular. Morgan is a lovable-rogue sort, a ruthless power-broker and hopeless drunk (noisy, dangerous) who inherited the political machine from his loony-binned father-in-law, the former Speaker. But now it looks as if the Morgan machine, despite the efforts of suave counsel Frank Costello, is about to be jammed at last: a minor fund-raiser is going on trial for extortion--a trial that may at last give the Ames Commission (headed by Morgan's arch-enemy, a half-senile Boston Brahmin) some solid evidence of State House corruption. So, with everyone's epic verbal digressions keeping the pace more stately than taut, Higgins moves his focus around and around--from the Commission's investigation to Costello's efforts at cover-up; from the rival-reporters covering the story to Morgan's private life; from the mental hospital where the former Speaker still lives (visited by his homicidal, loony son) to Martha's Vineyard, where contractor Vinnie Mahoney is working on an airstrip project. . . thanks to heavy Morgan-campaign contributions. And when poor Vinnie, a basically decent guy, is effectively grilled by the Ames Commission (a smooth black lawyer, a rough white investigator), it looks like they've finally got the goods on Morgan--who may be ready to pack it in anyway, what with his physical deterioration and the terminal illness of his beloved longtime mistress, ""Prudential Maggie."" (His legal wife--who still lives and sleeps around back in their hometown--is ""Proctor Maggie."") As in his previous political novel, A City on a Hill, Higgins tends to ramble a lot here, without the sustained tension of his best petty-low-life tales; again, too, there's an obviousness about his sneaking admiration for crude, wise, openly crooked Morgan, his fierce distaste for the slimier finaglings of ambitious D.A.'s or smoother politicos. And the famed Higgins dialogue, as in other recent novels, is only half-dazzling: too many characters use precisely the same, unconvincing mannerisms; the set-pieces are too set; one sometimes gets the feeling that Higgins has been re-reading his books instead of listening freshly to the way people really talk. Still, even with a dollop or two of contrived melodrama at the close, this second-string Higgins has enough texture and color and raucous humor to reward his well-earned following--with occasional moments of effective compassion (e.g., the protective family of the senile Brahmin) and genuine atmospheric genius.