The Rat on Fire

by George V. Higgins. Knopf, $10.95. After several pages of profane eloquence, to which his men listen with amused resignation, Detective Roscommon gets to the point. The attorney general’s unprintable young assistant has informed his boss, “ ‘There’re people that’re burning buildings down in Boston. . . . And furthermore . . . they are doing it for money.'
“ ‘Goodness gracious,’ Sweeney said.
“ ‘Heavens to Betsy,’ Carbone said.”
Since arson for profit is in fact one of Boston’s livelier industries, Mr. Higgins has a solid background for his latest tale of seedy intrigue and inept crime. The story is told almost entirely in dialogue (all the major characters are splendidly garrulous), which enables the author to display, with savage accuracy, the ethnic grudges and suspicions that permeate the Athens of America, while at the same time unwinding his tangle of bribery, blackmail, and conspiracy unencumbered by detail. The novel is compact, cruel, and bitterly funny—Mr. Higgins at his best.