Many years ago I read Higgins's most famous novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and didn't get what all the fuss what about. With many hundreds of books under my belt since then, including this one, I now have a much better sense of why Higgins is so revered among crime fiction cognoscenti. Simply put, it's his ear for the dialogue and mores of the criminal world.
The plot is certainly nothing remarkable -- some small time hoods scheme to knock over an after-hours card game and put the blame on the guy running the game. This causes all the other after-hours card games to shut down, and the mob sends fixer Jackie Coogan in to clean things up. A few complications ensue, but the book is not about the plotting, it's about the telling of the story. And that's done almost entirely through dialogue.
But not just any dialogue -- these aren't conventional fictional conversations with begins, middles, and ends. In many cases, the reader is dropped into a conversation that's already begun, and there can be long passages where the topic of discussion is somewhat opaque, until one works it out from context. It's kind of an amazingly improbably blend of the highly realistic with the highly stylized. One would be hard-pressed to come away from this (and other ) Higgins books not believing that Quentin Tarantino has read and absorbed them all.
Readers who like their crime to be plot-driven will probably find this story kind of frustrating, given how meandering it is. It's also pretty clear from the get-go what's going to happen and when, so those who need their crime stories to be full of suspense will be similarly frustrated. But if you're looking for a master class in creating character through dialogue, this is it! Now I just have to go back and read The Friends of Eddie Coyle!