Reviews by title
Reviews by author
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
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
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 à clef to comment about fame and the different types of people
that it attracts: fanatical collectors, literary academics, groupies and
"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.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.