The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons: A Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery
A few years back, Lawrence Block, one of the greatest mystery writers in the world, publicly speculated about being finished writing books. He said at the time that all his series characters had seemed to reach their natural end points. Of course, with all the great work Block had produced --- over 100 books in half a century --- he deserved to retire if he wanted, despite the loud objections of his fans.
Well, lucky for his fans and book lovers in general, he did not retire. This past July, he boarded the MS Veendam in Boston for a relaxing cruise and five weeks later returned having written a new book. THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS is his first in eight years, featuring perhaps his most beloved character: the gentleman burglar, master crime solver and Greenwich Village bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr.
While Bernie stays the same over time, it is certainly indicative of the fast-changing world in which we live that Block, who began his career writing paperback pulp fiction and reached bestseller status the traditional big publishing house way, is publishing his latest book himself and issuing it on Christmas Day both in paperback and electronic media. Block has strongly embraced the new world of publishing, having released many of his back titles as eBooks and even selling his out-of-print books through eBay. With SPOONS, this means that his legion of fans will be able to read Bernie months before they would have the traditional way.
"THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS is one of the best mystery novels of 2013.... This book shows one of America’s greatest writers still working at the absolute top of his game. We are lucky that Lawrence Block postponed retirement. Long may he keep writing."
And they are in for a delight. THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS is one of the best mystery novels of 2013. Bernie is hired to steal a valuable Fitzgerald manuscript out of a NYC museum, and this eventually leads to the quest to illegally obtain a rare American colonial silver spoon. Of course, things rarely go smoothly, and during the course of events, a body ends up being discovered stretched out on a Trent Barling carpet. There is also a girl with a gecko tattoo and a unique skill.
This is the first Bernie book since the 2004 bestseller, THE BURGLAR ON THE PROWL, and it is like visiting old friends. Besides Bernie, there is his best friend, Carolyn Kaiser, who owns the dog grooming shop a few doors down from Bernie’s Barnegat Books. His bookstore is not doing much business in the new world of books but still serves as a fine front for a burglar. Bernie still has his cat, Raffles, sitting in his favorite spot on the window ledge. And there are plenty of pages given here to NYPD officer Ray Kirschmann, who Bernie calls “the fly in my ointment.” Ray has long known the truth about Bernie but has never been able to catch him. Indeed, this time, Ray will come to Bernie for help.
As with all of Block’s books, the writing here is flawless, witty and eloquent. Block can effortlessly weave backstory on minor historical matters through multiple chapters and character conversations. So, for example, we learn that campaign buttons were once real buttons, not pins, that you sewed on your clothing if you liked, say, Mr. Washington or William Henry Harrison. And we learn about apostle spoons, with each of the 12 getting his own emblem. Who knew?
Only a master craftsman could put this info into a mystery and make you keep turning the pages. And what is even more amazing is that Block created his two most famous characters in the same city just one year apart.
The 1970s were not a great decade for New York City. The city went broke, forcing the New York Daily News to write a famous headline about the president of the United States: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” In 1977, there was a blackout and an ensuing riot that brought in the National Guard. Times Square at night was filled not with tourists from Iowa but with hookers and junkies and porn theaters and high school kids from the suburbs, like me, buying fake ids with which to drink. And on top of it all, some nut who called himself the “Son of Sam” was roaming the streets, looking for young couples in cars to shoot at with a .44 pistol.
Block wrote his first book about Bernie in 1977, BURGLARS CAN’T BE CHOOSERS. A year earlier, he penned his first story about an alcoholic ex-NYPD cop who is now an unlicensed PI named Matt Scudder, THE SINS OF THE FATHERS. Block had already been writing under his own and various pen names for almost two decades by then. He was a successful professional writer, having written everything from hard-boiled noir to softcore sex novels. But in Bernie and Scudder, he came up with a powerful one-two punch: two of the greatest series in the history of mysteries.
They were a perfect balance. The Bernie books were lighthearted, traditional mysteries: Bernie would have to solve tough mysteries generally to get himself out a jam. And the Bernie in SPOONS seemingly has not aged a day since the 1970s. Indeed, he looks the same on the wonderful cover done by Emanuel Schongut as he did when Mr. Carter was in the White House. (Indeed, Schongut did the cover work for the original Bernie book.)
But while Bernie developed one way, Scudder followed another path. By the fourth novel of the Scudder series, Block had done something truly extraordinary: he had created urban noir that was as dark and menacing as anything ever written by Cain or Hammett or Woolrich. And unlike Bernie, Scudder aged in real time along with his creator, but the books in the series, now numbering 17, never lost their hard-boiled edge.
Over the years, there have been fans of Bernie and fans of Scudder. Just as you could once test a person’s outlook on life by asking which was their favorite Beatle, so too could you judge a mystery fan by which Block creation they loved the most. Most writers would be happy to create one great, memorable series character. Block created two.
Fans of both series as well as all mystery lovers will find something to enjoy in THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS. This book shows one of America’s greatest writers still working at the absolute top of his game. We are lucky that Lawrence Block postponed retirement. Long may he keep writing. And if you have missed any of the Bernie or Scudder books, do yourself a favor this holiday season: Search them out and read them.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 20, 2013