Saturday, March 24, 2012

Nobody compares to Bernie

Not long ago I read a mystery novel whose narrator was a burglar. It wasn't a bad book; but when I finished it, I put it down thinking, "You, sir, are no Bernie Rhodenbarr."

Who is Bernie Rhodenbarr? He's a burglar, a smart-alec, an amateur detective, and the protagonist of a wonderful series of mysteries by Lawrence Block. Like the hero of that other book, he loves to break into other people's homes and steal things. He wants to live an honest life, but the thrill of burglary is too great for him to give up. In each book, he sets up a score - and then things go wrong. He'll be somewhere he doesn't belong when a murder takes place, for instance; or maybe the person who hired him to do the job will double-cross him. Bernie will solve the crime, get away with the loot, and stay out of prison one more day.

My favorite is The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, in which Bernie is hired to steal a rare book and finds himself framed for murder. The first five pages of this book are possibly the greatest first five pages of any mystery I've ever read.

The plots of these books are not terribly plausible, but they're worth reading for the snappy dialogue and for Block's terrific, economical descriptions: "He was a stout man, florid of face, jowly as a bulldog, with thinning mahogany hair combed straight back over a glossy salmon scalp ... His eyebrows were untamed tangles of briar; beneath them his eyes (brown, to match his outfit) were keen and cool and just a trifle bloodshot."

These books are fast-paced, improbable, and extremely fun. The titles in the series are:

Burglars Can't be Choosers
Burglar in the Closet
The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart
The Burglar In the Library
The Burglar In the Rye
The Burglar On the Prowl

1 comment:

  1. My favorite is The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams. It could be an homage to Sue Grafton. I have a copy signed by her!

    Wyma Rogers