The one major thing I took away from reading George V. Higgins’ The Rat on Fire, and what I will probably take away from reading any of his books, is that he writes dialogue better than any other writer I have come across, even more so than Elmore Leonard. It is the crisp, honest, rhythmic and down to Earth as you can get, and he uses it to not only describe the characters that inhabit this criminal underworld of Boston, but also uses it to push the plot forward, never having more than a few descriptive sentences describe the scene. It makes for an interesting, if detached feeling throughout the story, since most of the characters come off as mere symbols for a world that is hopelessly cannibalistic and not really three dimensional people we can relate to easily. I get the feeling that most of Higgins’ books are like this, not so much about narrative as providing insight into an esoteric community. The two central characters here are Leo Proctor, a professional arsonist and Jerry Fein, a crooked lawyer and slum lord, who conspire to burn down a tenement house where the residents refuse to pay, using an oddly effective, yet still very odd method hinted at in the title. Like I said, the plot isn’t important here, it’s fascinating to see this world work; its many broken springs and rusty cogs still managing to keep the machine going. Towards the end, I thought of Leonardo Sciascia’s To Each His Own, and how similar his account of Cosa Nostra is to the Boston underworld. Each is reliant on expendable workers, rats, if you want to use a metaphor from the book, who are able to do the work until they can’t anymore, and then it’s time for them to get tossed into the fire as well. Not always the most interesting or emotionally investing kind of read, this, and again, I’m assuming most of Higgins’ novels, provide a harrowing look into the desperately short, and ultimately meaningless life of those outside the law.