Of the many series characters created by prolific crime novelist Lawrence Block’s, my personal favorite has to be his Bernie Rhodenbarr a.k.a. The Burglar Who _____. It’s not because of his title profession, which fuels the plots of Block’s entertaining comic murder mysteries, but his avocation: the owner and operator of an New York City used bookstore. I worked as the manager of a used bookstore for a time in my twenties, and Block and Bernie capture the warm feeling that spending your days in a room full of print and paper can provide; Rhondenbarr’s capers are fun, but it’s Barnegat Books that speaks to this reader’s soul.
In this, both Bernie and myself may be men out of time, as the opening to his newest caper, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, wryly depicts in the book’s opening. In it, our hero is sitting behind the counter, watching a slender young girl paging through a copy of Frank Norris’ The Pit, only to blithely use her cell phone to order a Kindle version of the same book and happily announce what she’s done to the store owner. Our hero takes it in stride, of course, since he (and we) know he’s got a better source of income – which he quickly sets to working on in the second chapter, stealing an early draft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for a collector obsessed with all things button-related. Bernie’s successful completion of this caper leads to a second button-ish commission with a much more difficult to acquire item, an apostle spoon. What are apostle spoons? Bernie tells us, as well as giving us the skinny on the genesis of “The Night Before Christmas.” The joys of having a well-read narrator.
At the same time, New York Police Department detective Ray Kirschmann, a friendly nemesis from earlier books, shows up to enlist Bernie’s advice on a robbery that appears to resulted in the death of a wealthy little old lady. Through a series of finely wrought twists, the two affairs turn out to be connected, leading to a gathering of all the parties involved in both. Unlike most of the earlier volumes, Bernie never has to engage in any fancy footwork to distract Detective Kirschmann from his illegal activities – Kirschmann takes it as a given. Rhodenbarr is the “last of the gentleman burglars,” the copper notes, and he’s a mean sleuth as well.
Not to mention: entertaining company. One of the other pleasurable features in Block’s series is our narrator’s friendship with dog groomer Carolyn Kaiser, who serves as a lunchtime buddy, sounding board and occasional companion during Bernie’s scouting expeditions. The Bernie/Carolyn dialogs – which cover their love lives, crime and Life in These Times – are comic and satiric, and you can see Block having fun with them. EBooks and electronic locks may be aggravating 21st-century innovations, but good friendships last.