Burglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr – gentleman burglar – has been hired by a mysteriously familiar figure to break into the apartment of a theatrical agent to locate a small blue leather box. He knows the agent is going to be out and he knows that the box is hidden in a roll-top desk. Breaking in – although breaking does imply a lack of class – he finds three problems. One, no blue box. Two, two policeman, bursting in to arrest him. Oh, and three, the agent’s dead body in the bedroom. Things don’t look too promising for our hero…

Over the course of about thirty-five years, Lawrence Block has written ten Burglar novels – all of the rest are “The Burglar Who…” but this is the first. I was inspired to pick it up when Patrick recently reviewed The Burglar In The Library. The view seemed to be, from the comments, that people preferred the later books rather than the earlier ones. That seemed at odds with my memories of the series – I’ve read them all, but ages ago, so I thought I’d return to a book that I know I enjoyed when I read it. But would things have changed?

Not in the slightest. Bernie is a charming host – the book being told in the first person – and rather witty at that. He is full of insights into how to break into people’s houses and divest them of their valuables, although he is thankfully rather silent of how one actually opens the locks. This isn’t a handbook, in case there are any readers out there looking for tips.

Being the first book in the series, it’s odd, having read the later ones, to see Bernie being basically alone for this one. He has yet to acquire his bookshop, best friend Caroline or his cat, Raffles. He does have a way with the ladies and rapidly acquires a sidekick in the form of a plant-waterer of the apartment he breaks into when he has to lie low. Luckily, she has a thing for burglars…

But of course, you’re here to hear about the mystery. And it’s rather a clever little thing, too. For a while, it does feel as if you’re reading a noir novel, but as it develops, you realise that there are clues there and the revelation of what actually happened certainly was a surprise to me when I read it the first time.

If I had to make a point against it, I’d have to point out – and I only realised this in hindsight – that there are a couple of times when the clue was something that was said to Bernie. You know the sort of thing – “Miss Smith, you mentioned earlier that you had no brothers or sisters, so how can you have a nephew?” – but with first person narration, it’s a bit of a cheat to have absolutely no reaction to the misstatement when it is made. But this book certainly isn’t going for realism, so I’m probably being deeply pedantic here. Oh, and there are a few logical holes and one hell of a coincidence, but it’s all part of the fun.

Anyway, the first five Bernie books are available as a collection on Kindle at a decent price – this one is heartily recommended.

8 comments

  1. There are authors who use the first person and can get away with hiding things from the reader without being tricky (a la Christie) or making you feel a bit cheated, but it is hard to do and that strikes me as a very valid point and not just being nitpicky. I definitely read some of these way back when but they didn’t make as a great an impression as the Matt Scudder series, but then I’m a big fan of the hardboiled PI in fiction of course …

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  2. I was kind of put off the Scudder series when the one I read, Even The Wicked, had what I felt to be a really obvious mystery plot. Well written, but I felt that the mystery was lacking. As ever with me, first impressions are so important. Maybe I should return to the series.

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  3. I interviewed Mr. Block years ago and he told me of the genesis of the Burglar series. He was having a hard time writing and thus not making a living, so he thought about things he might be able to do since he had no training. He contemplated burglary and even tried to learn to pick locks. However, he said he was always worried about getting caught and even worried about breaking into an apartment only to discover a dead guy … oh wait. That’s a good idea for a book! And thus Bernie was born.

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