Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Burglars Can't Be Choosers: Lawrence Block

The following overview of Lawrence Block's writing was in Marcia Muller's review of After the First Death (1969), first published in 1001 Midnights (1986, ed. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller).
Lawrence Block is a top-flight professional who has written numerous novels featuring extremely diverse characters and situations. His characterization ranges from the grim depths glimpsed in some of his non-series books and in his series about alcoholic ex-policeman Matthew Scudder, to the lightweight but amusing private eye/writer Chip Harrison, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and spy Evan Tanner. Whether Block is chronicling a deadly search or a playful romp, he is a consummate master of suspense and manages to keep his reader fearing for the safety of — and solidly rooting for — his protagonist until the last page is turned.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block now consists of 11 books. The series started in 1977, although the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, was not intended to be the start of a series. The most recent book was published in 2013. I read some of these books many years ago; they would have been from the first five books which were published between 1977 and 1983.

This post on Burglars Can't Be Choosers is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature, for the year chosen for April, 1977.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a burglar. He is proud and confident of his ability at his craft. However he is a loner, and his acquaintances and neighbors have no idea how he supports himself. He usually scouts out his own heists, but this time he accepts an assignment from a stranger to break into an apartment and steal a blue leather box. The problem is he can't find the blue box, and while he is searching for it two policemen come into the apartment. But, worst of all, there is a dead man in the bedroom. Bernie successfully eludes the policemen but he then has the problem of not being able to return to his apartment. Not wanting to leave New York, he begins to try to clear his name.

This is another series that I find most appealing for the characters. Bernie tells his story in first person, and he is a very likable character. I don't condone burglary, but he makes you forget that his chosen profession is illegal and harmful. And, of course, he only robs the rich. He has been described as the Robin Hood type, but since his goal is to support himself, I don't see that as a fitting description.

Not only is Bernie charming, but he runs into many interesting people as he endeavors to prove that he is not a murderer. The setting is New York, and I enjoyed this picture of New York in the 1970's. The story is full of coincidences but none of them detracted from my enjoyment of the resolution of this mystery.

Of course, I have several more books in this series, and I look forward to finding out how Bernie's life as an unrepentant burglar progresses (as I remember very little about the books I read earlier).

The paperback reprint edition that I read includes a short essay about how Lawrence Block came to write this first book in the Burglar series. Lawrence Block has another popular series set in New York about Matt Scudder, an ex-cop who becomes an unlicensed private investigator. That one also started in the 1970s and continued for many years, the last book having been published in 2011. The author has also edited two anthologies of short stories set in New York, Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics.


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Publisher:  Onyx, 1995. Orig. pub. 1977.
Length:      283 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Bernie Rhodenbarr, #1
Setting:      New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

10 comments:

  1. I like Bernie the Burglar, too, Tracy. He's really a good character, I think. And he's both smart and interesting. I'm glad you enjoyed this outing.

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    1. I did enjoy it, Margot, and I hope to get to more of them soon.

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  2. It's been ages since I read any of these, though I remember liking them (though not as much as the Scudder books, admittedly).

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    1. Lots of reviewers say the same, that they prefer Scudder. I would have to read a few more of both before I could say, Sergio. It has been a while since I have read the first Scudder book and I need to get going on them.

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  3. I am currently reading my first Lawrence Block novel (a Bernie story) and am really liking it.

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    1. That is great, Mary, I am looking forward to reading more of them myself. I will watch for your review.

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  4. Haven't read any of Block's fiction in decades, Tracy, and you're inspired me to revisit him. More recently I greatly enjoyed his collection of reminiscences of his contemporaries, many of whom are or were friends, and some fascinating anecdotes about his internship at the (sleazy}Scott Meredith Agency: Crime of our Lives

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    1. I am currently reading Crime of our Lives, Mathew, just a few pages here and there when I have time. Some of the authors he covers I haven't read at all or don't know much about.

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  5. I enjoy Lawrence Block but haven't read this series yet. 1977 should have a lot of great books. Looking forward to the round-up to see what everyone has read. -Keishon

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    1. I agree, Keishon, 1977 is a great year. I had trouble deciding what I was going to read, there were so many I had on my TBR. Other participants were not so happy because they prefer the Golden Age books.

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