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The Imposters by George V. Higgins (Henry Holt: $16.95; 361 pp.)

June 01, 1986| Marvin Seid | Seid is a Times editorial writer. and

In such earlier and memorable novels as "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and "The Digger's Game," George V. Higgins depicted with near-stenographic precision the raunchy and often comic world of small-time crooks, dreamy hustlers and inevitable victims, people it was a delight to read about and gratifying not to know. The characters in "The Imposters," by contrast, are for the most part of somewhat loftier status, or so the way they eat, dress and talk would suggest. But if the sleaziness depicted here is more high-toned than in other of Higgins' books, it is no less pervasive. This is a story of venality and manipulation, told deftly with attention to exact details and with Higgins' usual fine ear for what is said as well as for what is left unspoken.

Mark Baldwin (Andover, Harvard, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy), has served a few gentlemanly years with the State Department and done a stint as a working newspaperman on his way to achieving eminence as chief executive officer of a publishing conglomerate. Now, rich, respected and a member of all the right Boston clubs, Baldwin is shaken to learn that some secrets he had assumed were long forgotten may soon be resurrected, threatening him not only with disgrace but, worse, with unemployment.

One secret involves a homosexual murder case that the police didn't work too hard to solve. A second involves a real estate scam. The third touches Baldwin most intimately. Nearly a quarter-century earlier, when he was a far from youthful 30, Baldwin enjoyed a one-night stand with a girl who was still some years shy of the age of consent. Thanks to his well-greased friendship with local law enforcement officials and a payoff to the girl's family, Baldwin was able to evade prosecution for statutory rape.

Now, though, a colleague from Baldwin's reporter days is about to be tried for murder. Joe Logan freely admits that he turned a shotgun on the drunken driver who received wrist-slapping punishment after causing the deaths of Logan's wife and son. Logan's defense will be that he acted only after the criminal justice system had proved itself a failure. To show that this failure was no aberration, Logan may well expose what he knows about the casual police work in the old murder case. Once launched on his revelations of past legal sloppiness and cover-ups there is no telling where Logan may stop. That is what makes him a threat to Baldwin.

And so Baldwin hires Constance Gates, an attractive divorcee with a heavy credit-card habit, to find out just what Logan may decide to reveal in court. But ever the manipulator, Baldwin tries to make Gates believe that she has been assigned to do a magazine piece on the Logan case. As she pursues her story layers of deceit are successively exposed.

"The Imposters"--few people in this novel are what they profess to be--unfolds largely in a series of conversations. The themes are familiar. Money, or the prospect of it, can command silence and suborn connivance. Sex is a commodity to be exchanged for information or granted as a reward. The outwardly respectable can be as capable of cynical opportunism and casual cruelties as the con men, hookers and sharpies of Higgins' earlier novels. The nastiest of corrupt bargains can be struck in the most elegant of places.

As always, Higgins gives us characters who are convincingly drawn, a sense of place that is sharply evoked, and writing that is first-class. His impostors are not very nice people, but it's highly satisfying to spend some time with them.

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