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Onyx reviews: The Burglar in the Rye by Lawrence Block

The title of this mystery novel is Block's usual play on narrator-and-part-time-burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr's intended target, in this case a set of letters written by Gully Fairborn, a thinly disguised rendition of J.D. Salinger. Fairborn has produced one enormously well-known and influential work, Nobody's Baby, (think Catcher in the Rye) and has subsequently become an itinerant recluse. His later books have been far less profoundly accepted but still sell by association with his earlier success. The literal 'rye' is Fairborn's preferred drink.

Fairborn feels that his books are his conversation with the reading public, and that his readers are entitled to nothing more. Everything else falls into the realm of his own private thoughts, including letters to his agent, Anthea Landau, who has offered up her file of Fairborn letters to Sotheby's for auction.

Bernie is approached by Alice Cottrell, an attractive young woman whose claim to fame is that she had a much-publicized affair with Fairborn as a teenager. Cottrell wants Bernie to steal the letters from Landau before they are submitted to the auction house, keeping them out of the public record. Bernie feels that "Nobody's Baby" changed his life, so he agrees to the assignment, even though it appears that there will be little fiscal compensation.

Though Bernie is a highly skilled burglar, the course of larceny rarely ever goes smooth: he invariably stumbles across a dead body in the midst of a robbery. In this case, the corpse is Anthea Landau, who has been stabbed in her Paddington Hotel home shortly before Bernie breaks into her suite. The letters, of course, are missing. Bernie escapes the scene of the crime moments before the police arrive. He commits another burglary along the way, stashes his tools and loot, but is arrested in the lobby of the hotel as he is making his getaway.

The police do not seriously suspect Bernie of the murder, but everyone assumes that he was responsible for the theft of the letters. A parade of characters appears at Bernie's antiquarian book store to make offers he shouldn't be able to refuse for these valuable documents. It also turns out that the spoils from his second burglary, valuable ruby jewelry, had been stolen the night before he stole them. There are too many burglars, too many dead bodies and too much attention for Bernie to lead his usual low-profile life, so it is up to him to straighten the mess out. He is assisted by a colorful assortment of friends and allies, including his best friend, a lesbian dog groomer and his police associate, who is more interested in illicit profit than actual crime-solving.

Block has taken many liberties with the real-life Salinger story. In reality, it was Salinger's young lover, Joyce Maynard, who auctioned off his letters this past June and no burglar was able to intercede in their sale. However, Block uses this roman clef to comment about fame and the different types of people that it attracts: fanatical collectors, literary academics, groupies and profit-seekers.

"I may be a criminal, but that doesn't make me a bad person," Bernie says in the closing pages as he exposes the identity of the murderer before the assembled group of suspects. Indeed, in spite of his penchant for burglary, Bernie is an admirable and mostly ethical character. The convoluted explanation is difficult for even the other characters to follow ("It took long enough," one of them complains after the police have escorted the guilty party off to jail), but Block pulls off the complex recreation of the flow of events in a convincing and amusing manner.

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