The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons

Posted: June 21, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Lawrence Block

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Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookstore owner and part time gentleman burglar (or perhaps gentleman burglar and part time bookstore owner) has been engaged by a client to pilfer a rare F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscript from a New York museum. The job goes so well that the mysterious client wants Bernie to help in the acquisition of further items. Meanwhile Ray Kirschmann, Bernie’s nemesis in the NYPD actually wants Bernie’s help. An old lady has been found dead in an upscale apartment. Her cause of death is a mystery but she appears to have expired after interrupting a burglar. Ray knows Bernie wasn’t involved (this time) but hopes his experience in the realms of housebreaking might help solve the crime.

Bernie looks into matters and quickly comes to the conclusion that something smells fishy. But he also has the small matter of trying to break into a highly secure penthouse to distract him, not to mention one or two romantic entanglements. He does at least have the help of his trusty sidekick, lesbian dog groomer Carolyn Kaiser, but just what do silver spoons, buttons and dead presidents have to do with things?

 

I’ve never been as much of a fan of the Bernie Rhodenbarr books as I am of the Matt Scudder ones, but a Block novel I haven’t read is always a pleasure, and it always pleases me that Block can write cosy crime capers as surely as he can gritty violent pulp, and certainly this is a world away from the last book of his I read just a few months ago.

Part of what has always rankled a little with Bernie is that his tales tend to be more formulaic than the Scudder novels. He’d invariably be hired to purloin some goods, and just as invariably he’d discover a dead body inside wherever he was burglarising and he’d become the prime suspect and have to clear his name, so the first thing to note about this novel is that (not much of a spoiler) it breaks the mould in that this time the cops know full well Bernie didn’t do the deed—although Block does have some amusingly meta comments to make later on about how characters who radically change tend to cease being fun to read about so I’m guessing if there is ever another Rhodenbarr novel it might be back to business as usual, still for this occasion at least it’s a pleasant change, especially since Ray acknowledges that Bernie just isn’t that kind of criminal.

Even though it’s more than a decade since the last Bernie novel, Block slips back into the character with the ease of a comfortable pair of shoes, although I did find myself questioning just how old Bernie is now, yet all his romances still seem to revolve around young women, perhaps Bernie’s just one of those literary characters who is ageless? Carolyn’s sexuality still seems to be too much a part of her personality, but at least it’s never viewed as any kind of negative and she’s an amusing foil for Bernie, and I like that Ray is still more of a necessary evil than an outright friend. And of course there’s Bernie’s cat, the amusing named Raffles.

The cast of new characters is well put together, even if some of them turn up too late in the book for you to readily identify them as possible suspects, Bernie’s new patron has an intriguing yet surreal fascination, which leads to a lot of detailed exposition about subjects you never really wanted to know about, yet it’s to Block’s credit that even these sections hold your interest. Block even manages to slip some commentary on the current publishing market in there, with Bernie annoyed when people buy books in his store then put them online, or worse still identify books they like in his shop, then download the digital versions! Really if it wasn’t for his criminal activities you imagine Barnegat Books would have gone out of business long ago.

The plot is bonkers, and yes there are a multitude of contrivances, and I’m still not entirely sure how Bernie links it all together, but it hardly matters when you have a writer whose prose is as polished as Block’s is, so that even discussions around silver spoons becomes a pleasure rather than a chore, let alone the tense burglaries and the obligatory “You’re probably wondering why I brought you all here tonight” ending. At the end of the day much of the fun is to be had simply from the characters’ conversations. Fun, pithy, punchy and nor remotely dark and gritty. Yes it’s formulaic, but let’s be honest here, that’s part of the charm.  Recommended, though you probably should read a few of the earlier books first.

 

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