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the judgment of deke hunter

11 november 2021

George V. Higgins' early novels are dialogue-driven, sometimes nothing but dialogue for pages on end. In The Judgment of Deke Hunter (1976), his sixth novel, Higgins tried something different. He starts with brittle, hyperexpository omniscient narration, giving the facts of various lives and criminal activities in prose that isn't intrinsically arch but seems so, because you keep waiting for the veneer of objectivity to crack and the hard-boiled dialogue to commence. Eventually it does. But there's more to The Judgment of Deke Hunter than dialogue.

And there's more to it than tough guys. In particular, women characters get their say in The Judgment of Deke Hunter, and get it at length. There are scenes of guys saying stuff to other guys; Higgins could hardly abandon his stock in trade. But the more typical scene in The Judgment of Deke Hunter consists of two people, often a man and a woman, talking around something at length, trying to get at some fundamental readjustment in their relationship – and always failing. It is a more pensive and discursive novel than Higgins' early masterpieces, maybe not as successful, but haunting and memorable in its own way.

Deke Hunter is a cop, a state-police detective working for a Massachusetts prosecutor's office. The main plot of Judgment shows Deke working a bank robbery case where the perpetrators are obviously but the business of finding them, and getting their accomplices to testify against them, is precarious. Deke has a mentor named Horace Carmody, a cynical tough-love kind of guy who says he likes Deke but never shows it. Much of the dialogue in the book takes the form of monologues of advice directed to other characters, and Carmody excels at this hard-boiled topos.

Meanwhile, Deke has a wife he doesn't like much anymore, kids who annoy him, a feckless father-in-law who increasingly wheedles Deke into doing things for him (but we also realize is genuinely dependent on the younger man, something Deke can't appreciate). Deke has a girlfriend too, a side of his life we see but he keeps compartmentalized from the others, naturally his wife but also from Carmody (who knows all about her, chides Deke about the relationship, but cannot get him to admit it even exists).

The Judgment of Deke Hunter is not a great novel. The plot gets too complex; the courtroom scenes are too cluttered. There is a racist passage where the characters seem to be voicing the author's own animus. But it is a cop story that's of a piece with Higgins' earlier books where the bad guys are the focus, and it is a fascinating complement to them.

Higgins, George V. The Judgment of Deke Hunter. Boston: Atlantic Monthly [Little, Brown], 1976. PS 3558 .I356