"The man," said my friend Marty Gilmartin, "is an absolute . . . a
complete . . . an utter and total . . . " He held out his hands,
shook his head, and sighed. "Words fail me. "
"Apparently," I agreed. "Nouns, anyway. Adjectives seem to be
supporting you well enough, but nouns --"
"Help me out, Bernard," he said. "Who is more qualified to supply
le mot juste? Words, after all, are your métier."
"Books are your stock-in-trade, " he said, "and what is a book?
Paper and ink and cloth and glue, to be sure, but if a book were
nothing more than those mundane components, no one would want to
own more than one of them. No, it's the words that constitute a
book, sixty or eighty or a hundred thousand of them."
"Or two hundred thousand, or even three." I'd read Grub Street
recently, and was thinking about the less-than-eminent Victorians
George Gissing wrote about, forced by their publishers to grind out
interminable three-volume novels for a body of readers who clearly
had far too much time on their hands.
"That's more words than I require," Marty said. "Just one, Bernie,
to sum up" -- he glanced around the room, lowered his voice --"no,
to impale Crandall Rountree Mapes like an insect upon a
"An insect," I suggested.
"Far too mild."
"A worm, a rat." He was shaking his head, so I shifted gears and
exited the animal kingdom."A bounder?"
"That's closer, Bernie. By God, he is a bounder, but he's much
worse than that."
"Better, but --"
I frowned, trying to conjure up a thesaurus spread open before me.
A bounder, a cad ...
"Oh, that comes close," he said."We'll settle for that if we can't
do any better. It's just archaic enough, isn't it? And it's better
than bounder or cad because it's clearly not a
temporary condition. The corruption is permanent, the man is putrid
to the core." He picked up his glass, breathed in the bouquet of
aged cognac." Rotter comes very close indeed to conveying
just what a thoroughgoing shitheel goes by the name of Crandall
I started to say something, but he held up a hand to stop me.
"Bernie," he said, wide-eyed with wonder,"did you hear what I just
"Precisely. That's perfect, the quintessential summation of the
man. And where do you suppose the word came from? Not its
derivation, that would seem clear enough, but how did it get into
our conversation? No one says shitheel anymore."
"You just did."
"I did, and I couldn't guess the last time I uttered it." He
beamed. "I must have been inspired," he said, and rewarded himself
with a small sip of the venerable brandy. I couldn't think of
anything I'd done to merit a reward, but I had a sip from my own
glass just the same. It filled the mouth like liquid gold, slid
down the gullet like honey, and warmed every cell of the body even
as it exalted the spirit.
I wasn't going to drive or operate machinery, so what the hell. I
had another sip.
We were in the dining room of The Pretenders, a private club on
Gramercy Park every bit as venerable as the cognac. The membership
ran to actors and writers, men in or on the fringes of the arts,
but there was a membership category called Patron of the Theater,
and it was through that door that Martin Gilmartin had
"We need members," he'd told me once,"and the main criterion for
membership at this point is the possession of a pulse and a
checkbook, though to look around you, you might suspect that some
of our members have neither. Would you like to become a member,
Bernie? Did you ever see Cats? If you loved it, you can join
as a Patron of the Theater. If you hated it, you can come in as a
I'd passed up the chance to join, figuring they might draw the line
at prospective members with criminal records. But I rarely turned
down an invitation to join Marty there for lunch. The food was
passable, the drink first-rate, and the service impeccable, but the
half-mile walk from Barnegat Books led me past eight or ten
restaurants that could say the same. What they couldn't provide was
the rich atmosphere of the nineteenth-century mansion that housed
The Pretenders, and the aura of history and tradition that
permeated the place. And then there was Marty's good company, which
I'd be glad of in any surroundings.
He's an older gentleman, and he's what fellows who read
Esquire want to be when they grow up -- tall and slender,
with a year-round tan and a full head of hair the color of old
silver. He's always well groomed and freshly barbered, his mustache
trimmed, his attire quietly elegant but never foppish. While
enjoying a comfortable retirement, he keeps busy managing his
investments and dipping a toe in the water when an attractive
business venture comes his way.
And, of course, he's a patron of the theater. As such he goes to
quite a few shows, both on and off Broadway, and occasionally
invests a few dollars in a production that strikes his fancy. More
to the point, his theatrical patronage has consisted in large part
of underwriting the careers of a succession of theatrical
ingénues, some of whom have actually demonstrated a certain
modicum of talent.
Dramatic talent, that is to say. Their talent in another more
private realm is something upon which only Marty could comment, and
he wouldn't. The man is discretion personified.
We met, I would have to say, in highly unlikely circumstances
Excerpted from THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL © Copyright 2003
by Lawrence Block. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow, an
imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.