Wednesday, April 18, 2012

'B' is for Bernie

This next review was inspired by Bill of Traditional Mysteries, who reviewed Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library a while ago. The review interested me—I had never read a Block and he seems to be a very prolific author of hardboiled mysteries/crime novels. I have another of his books, Eight Million Ways to Die, sitting on my shelf awaiting me to read it. But it seemed to me a little more interesting to first take a detour to the world of Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller and professional burglar, as he gets involved in a traditional snowed-in-English-country-house mystery!

After a relationship of Bernie’s goes sour (after all, the girl was getting married that Thursday!) the burglar decides to say “to hell with it” and refuses to cancel reservations he’s made for the weekend at an exclusive and quaint little hotel/guest house called Cuttleford House. He decides to instead bring Carolyn Keiser along, his best friend in the world as well as a lesbian. But he isn’t coming to Cuttleford House just to enjoy the fairy-tale-England atmosphere of the place… he’s there to look for a book. More specifically, a copy of the first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep inscribed by the author to Dashiell Hammett! Such a book, if it existed, would be absolutely priceless to fanatical collectors. And Bernie, after reading the memoirs of a forgotten pulp author, is convinced not only that the book probably exists, but also that its location is Cuttleford House.

But things get pretty awkward for Bernie when his ex turns up at the guest house with her new husband in tow… and then a body is discovered in the library! As the pyramid of bodies gets larger, the pool of suspects gets smaller, and eventually Bernie has to figure out whodunit… right?

As it turns out, the book was overall pretty enjoyable. Block shows some real reverence for several writers and when he talks about them, you can practically see him lighting up. And generally speaking, he’s usually pretty fair to Agatha Christie instead of engaging in a mean-spirited “parody” like that dreadful book The Act of Roger Murgatroyd. He tends to acknowledge the good things she did in the genre and being a devoted fan of the Queen of Crime, I liked that.

The only problems with this aspect come at the very end, when Block raises the work of Chandler, Hammett & Co. on a pedestal, far above the silly little things Dame Agatha wrote. I have nothing but admiration for Hammett, but when it comes to Chandler, my views are far less kind. When Block decided to follow Chandler’s footsteps in the world of lazy plotting, I nearly threw my book across the room—but thank goodness I did not, because that would have been the end of my Kindle.

I will try manoeuvring around Spoiler Rapids to explain why I reacted in such a way without spoiling anything. Basically, Block regurgitates a mistake Raymond Chandler made in one of his books, a piece of lazy, improvised, slap-dash plotting that rarely fails to leave me furious. It might work for some books, but it really doesn’t for this. Say what you want about “symbolism” and “complexity”, it is idiotic. Block basically wastes the reader’s time with a plot thread. There was one event that threw me off the trail because it gives the whole sordid mess a different complexion altogether. Block’s explanation of this event is just plain lazy… but he uses it to extoll the virtues of Raymond Chandler!!!

But let’s ignore that. The characters in this book are generally speaking plenty of fun, with only a few exceptions. There were a few characters – most notably, at least one of the victims – who, when they turned up dead or screaming at the dinner table, left me puzzled. I had no idea who they were! Some characters get far more screen-time than others, and although these characters are plenty of fun, it forces some others waaaaay into the background… and when you’re trying to construct a murder mystery around figures you can’t differentiate from one another, you run into problems.

When you boil it down to the basics, The Burglar in the Library is not a ground-breaking masterpiece. It’s just a fun book. For my tastes, it’s a little unfair to Christie at one point and a bit too kind to Raymond Chandler at another… but those are my tastes. There’s probably a fan of hardboiled mysteries composing a furious letter to his Member of Parliament, demanding my execution for calling Chandler’s plotting lazy.


If it wasn’t for the fact that this played into the ending, I wouldn’t even bring it up, because for much of the book Block is quite fair to Christie, and the book is plenty of fun. So would I recommend this book? Sure—it’s an enjoyable romp and the Kindle price for the book is extremely reasonable. The characters (the main ones, at least) are plenty of fun and their bantering is most enjoyable. There are better books out there, but there are worse ones as well. Far worse ones …


  1. Hmm - I forget the ending, but I did enjoy this one, a long time ago. Have to say, I've found the Burglar series has suffered from diminishing returns - the early ones are much better than the later ones, and I'd highly recommend those. This one... it's enjoyable, but it's not the best.

  2. I have read all, but three, of the Bernie Rhodenbarr books and thought this was one of the better entries into the series and was only surpassed by The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (a comedic-caper about valuable baseball cards that also pokes fun at, and alludes to, various mystery writers, from past and present, with a minor locked room sub-plot thrown into the mix) and The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (a bit more complex than you would expect from this series and centers on faked paintings and is sometimes as funny as the book mentioned here before).

    The other titles I have read were only so-so, IMHO. So don't expect any classics from this series, but they are perfect for a fast and fun read.

  3. I've read some, but not all, of the Rhodenbarr books, and I would agree with TomCat. Rather like we said about the Perry Mason book a little while back, these are skilful, solid and fun. Some are better than others, but none have been less than enjoyable.To use food metaphors; if you insist that every meal that crosses your lips is of gourmet standard, then you won't be happy. If you enjoy a good pub meal, you'll like these books.

  4. I read that after Hollywood made an adaptation of one of Block's books with Whoopi Goldberg as Bernie, Block deliberately wrote all of his subsequent books so as to be unfilmable.

  5. I know what you're getting at Patrick and am not especially ond of Block in his lighter veing, preferring his more hardboiled output, which is just my personal taste of course. I haven;t read any of this pseudonymous work, some of which is being reprinted by Hard Case Crime and John Norris has had some fascinating things to say about those.

    The Goldberg movie BURGLAR is a fairly daft adaptation (actually of two Block novels combined I think). At one point it looked as though Harrison Ford was going to star as Matt Scudder in an adaptation of WALK AMONG THE TOMSTONES an

  6. PS Something slightly odd happened there - anyway, Scott Frank, who adapted Elmore Leonard so splendidly for the such movies as OUT OF SIGHT and GET SHORTY (and co-wrote MINORITY REPORT) wrote the Scudder script - and then Ford got cold feet about playing a recovering alcoholic PI!

    Great post Patrick - though given how you feel about Chandler, I'm not sure how much you'd got for Block's Scudder series either!

  7. @Sergio
    It isn't so much Raymond Chandler I've got a problem with as much as - in this case at least - a lazy piece of plotting lifted from one of his novels and extolled as far superior to the silly fluff from an English country house mystery.

    I also recall reading that he saw that Whoopi movie on a flight and only realised after the credits rolled that it was based on his work!!!

    Excellent point-- and if you're satisfied with a trip to the pub, that makes the occasional gourmet meal that much more enjoyable!

    Thanks for the tips. I wasn't expecting the CITIZEN KANE of literature, but I was expecting something fun and Block didn't let me down in that regard, at least.

    Oh, goodie, that means my carefully-worded spoilers didn't instantly bring the solution flooding into your head even though you've read it. I guess it passes the unofficial litmus test of acceptable ranting without entering into The Spoiler Zone. [cue the "Twilight Zone" theme, someone!]

  8. Interesting to see your thoughts on this one. I'm sure someday I'll try another Block but for now the TBR pile beckons.