The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza (1980) by Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr is generally not a philosopher, despite a passing interest in Spinoza. He is, at times, a bookseller, but that isn’t his primary source of income. No, his primary source of income is burglary. He’s a classy burglar, just taking valuables and never inconveniencing his clients more than that. So he is somewhat disappointed when he, and his occasional partner Carolyn, stop by Herb and Wanda Colcannon’s apartment only to find some much less subtle thieves have got their first.

Luckily those thieves couldn’t open the safe, so the evening wasn’t a waste, with Bernie getting away with some nice jewelry and a priceless antique coin. Unfortunately later that night, a third set of burglars visited the Colcannons, after they returned home, attacking Herb and killing Wanda. As the police start to become very interested in Bernie’s whereabouts that night, things go from bad to worse – Bernie’s fence is murdered and the coin disappears without trace…

I’ve got a soft spot for Lawrence Block’s Burglar novels. There was an odd period in my reading life – my undergraduate years at university – when I’d read all the Agatha Christie novels but had yet to discover John Dickson Carr, and I wasn’t reading that much in the crime genre. I was mostly reading and re-reading Terry Pratchett, to be honest, but one author who I did stumble across was Lawrence Block and this series – I think the first was The Burglar In The Closet.

It’s been an age since I first read this one, or indeed anything from the series, but I’d forgot how much of a joy it is to be in Bernie’s company. His narration, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is an absolute joy. It’s feels a little like a character in a light-hearted mystery took a wrong turn and ended up in a noir novel, and yet feels no need to adapt to his surroundings.

This follows the usual format – a burglary goes wrong, a body shows up, and Bernie finds himself under suspicion for at least the burglary, if not the murder and decides to sort things out, usually by working out who the killer is and then breaking into the killer’s house and leaving a bundle of incriminating evidence therein, while clearing himself and making a profit in the progress. It’s quite a precise format, so it’s to Block’s credit that every time it just feels like a breath of fresh air.

There are two central mysteries here, the solution of one will surprise absolutely no-one who has read a few mysteries, but the second is very clever – arguably not exactly clued, but the logic Bernie uses to find the truth is pretty solid, and the gathering of suspects section is rather wonderful, but I’ll say no more about that.

The overwhelming feeling that I had when I read this was just enjoyment. I enjoyed the plot, I enjoyed the dialogue, I enjoyed the (very) small amount of philosophy in the plot. As I said, it’s been a while since I read these, and I notice that there’s at least one title in the series that I’ve never read. No idea how that passed me by, but it’ll be coming soon to the blog…

5 comments

  1. But why “to be honest?? Reading and re-reading Terry Pratchett is the best guarantee of good, or at least interesting, character I know.

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      • It is actually a short story (non-series) published in EQMM February 1989. It is included in the collection SOME DAYS YOU GET THE BEAR by Lawrence Block. The other stories in this collection are also generally quite good.
        It was made into a film with the same title (2005).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I confess to being surprised, I never pictured you as a Bernie reader! I enjoyed several of them 15 years ago or so. They work well as audiobooks.

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