That title is a mouthful huh?
Sam Pulsifer is only good at two things: packaging science and bumbling. His first major bumble comes at the young age of 18 when he burns down Emily Dickinson's historical house and kills two people who were inside (he didn't know they were there.) Ten years later he's out of jail and ready to get on with his life which turns out to be nothing more than bumbled decision after bumbled decision.
It works against Sam that most the people in his life lie to him or attempt to manipulate him. It doesn't help that, years after his initial crime, homes of other famous writers are being burned down throughout New England. And then there's the fact that Sam never felt the need to tell his wife about the arson, murder, and that the orphaned son of the couple who died in the fire is out for revenge. Poor Sam right? Wrong. Sam is not a character you easily feel sorry for, if at all. He's just too much of a mess to garner sympathy. Even when he does "good" you still aren't compelled to like or even appreciate him. He's just not a hero. Sam Pulsifer is nothing more than the main character in a story.
So, how an a book with an unlikeable main character be good? Sam's life is such a mess you can't stop reading about it. The story is also told by Sam as a memoir allowing you to hear Sam admit to and show the reader his own examples of the bumbling choices he makes in life. Personalizing the story in this way makes the action more compelling. I never liked Sam as a person, but his story was great. You don't often get a mess to muddle through like this in a novel and I found it refreshing.
Actually, there are no characters in Arsonist's Guide that are truly likable. Most of them lie and deceive, keep secrets, or tell half-truths that nobody really believes anyway. The only thing to really like is the story itself. Not being distracted by the characters really allows the reader to get into the action. For this reason though, I'd only recommend this book to readers who aren't easily defeated when presented with an unlikeable character. I'd hate to have anyone start this book and give up before getting to the ending - it is a mystery story after all.