Most of us are at least a little afraid of rats. In his new book, Robert Sullivan shows that we fear them with good reason. A rat's teeth are as strong as steel. By chewing through wires, rats disrupt phone cables and cause electrical fires. They can carry the West Nile virus, hantavirus and tularaemia - not to mention the Black Death. In the past century alone, it is estimated, rats have caused the deaths of ten million people.
Displaying an impressive lack of squeamishness, Sullivan spent a year observing the rats in a fetid corner of New York named Edens Alley. Seated on a camp chair and equipped with night-vision goggles and a Thermos of coffee, he watched the rats plunder the rubbish bags from restaurants and skirt the traps he laid. In addition to keeping his squalid vigils, Sullivan interviewed rat-catchers and health department workers as well as Robert Corrigan, author of Rodent Control, the rat-catcher's Bible.
Sullivan's book contains some interesting facts. Rats have sex up to 20 times a day, and one energetic rat couple can produce as many as 15,000 descendants a year. The rat's taste in food resembles that of a fussy child: it shrinks from fresh fruit and vegetables and its favourite meal is scrambled eggs, followed by macaroni and cheese. Unlike small children, however, if rats run out of food they will eat each other. They may also indulge in necrophilia: lustful male rats have been known to mate with dead females. It is not surprising that one writer calls the rat "the Lapdog of the Devil".
So how do you get rid of rats? The most common method is poison placed inside a shoebox-sized trap called a bait station. "With their small holes and zigzaggy interiors, bait stations are to a rat what a smoothly run fast-food restaurant is to a human," Sullivan writes. However, most rats are too crafty to enter these traps, and many have developed resistance to poison. It is almost as hard to kill the average rat, in fact, as it was to kill Rasputin. Sullivan describes watching a health department worker sedate a rat with enough anaesthetic to kill a cat and then draw blood from its heart with a syringe: the rat calmly gets up and saunters off.
Despite such promising subject matter, this book is not always as interesting as it should be. A work of non-fiction, like a novel, needs characters and a plot. Although Sullivan meets plenty of potentially interesting people - including Barry Beck, the rat-catcher who invented a trap called the Myrna-Baiter, named after his mother-in-law - none of them really comes alive. This is a subject that cries out for humour, but Sullivan is serious throughout, and sometimes pompous: rubbish is "rejectamenta"; the quiet alleyway is a "fermata of urbanity".
He also shows little selectiveness in writing about how rats have affected New York's history. The book is stuffed with detail, such as a yawn-inducing description of how the alleyway intersecting with Edens Alley got its name. The reader must snuffle through these passages, digging out the tastiest morsels and ignoring the rest.
As well as telling us things we do not want to know, Sullivan omits some things about which we do want to learn. For example, I would have liked more information about toilet rats. Sullivan reveals that rats can - and do - swim up the toilet. This raises questions: Has it ever happened with anyone sitting on the loo? And what should you do if it happens to you? Robert Corrigan recommends using a "wild-animal loop snare", but what is the best course of action for people who do not keep one of these next to the plunger? Sullivan neglects to find out, nor does he interview any apartment-dwellers who have encountered toilet rats. In the event of a rat swimming up your loo, Rats would be of no help - unless you use the book to give the beast a good whack.
Helena Echlin is the author of the novel Gone (Vintage)