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Onyx reviews: The Burglar Who Counted the
Spoons by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/29/2013
If there was no such thing as a coincidence, there wouldn't be a word for it.
So argues Bernie Rhodenbarr's "friend" Ray, a police officer who knows
(but cannot prove) that Bernie is still a practicing burglar. Bernie has helped
Ray solve crimes in the past, so he's willing to cut Bernie some slack. For his
part, Bernie puts on a brave face, claiming that he is supporting himself via
his used bookstore, even though many of his clientele use the shop as a place to
find books they ultimately buy online.
It has been nine years since Block last
allowed us to visit with Bernie. Not much has changed in his world since then.
His cover profession may be more precarious than ever before, but he still owns
the building where his bookstore is located, he and his best friend Carolyn, a
dog groomer to whom he can explain the plot, still spend most of their free time
together, he's still mostly a lone wolf, and he still breaks into people's
places and steals things. A Mondrian painting adorns his apartment walls and, by
the end of this book, he has another valuable item hanging beside it.
of the previous ten books in the "burglar" series, Bernie finds
himself in a tight spot when one of his break-in gigs goes wrong, usually when
he stumbles across a body. This book is somewhat different. He isn't fighting
for his liberty; in fact, he's working with Ray to figure out why and how an
elderly woman died during an apparent burglary. Did she stumble upon the thief
when she came home early and suffer a heart attack? Or did the burglar enter her
apartment and find her already dead?
At the same time, Bernie is conducting
forays on behalf of a man he knows as Mr. Smith. His first job involves stealing
the original manuscript to the F. Scott Fitzgerald story that will ultimately be
published as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." As he does other
work for the man, he detects a theme. Mr. Smith has a thing for buttons, in just
about any possible form. Real buttons, pin-back buttons, campaign buttons,
autographs and signatures by people named Button, and so on. He is willing to
pay handsomely to feed his obsession, and Bernie is ready to oblige. Some of the
objects, though, are in difficult-to-access places, which forces Bernie to use
some creative strategies to obtain them.
Unlike some of Block's other
characters, Bernie is unburdened by a dark past or addictions. He's been to
prison, but he doesn't dwell on it. He can drink heavily at times and be a teetotaler
at others without it being an issue. He isn't a monk, either. He encounters a
number of attractive women over the course of this book, has a memorable evening
with one who rejects him as "husband material," and, by the end of the
book, begins a tentative relationship with another woman who he has known
superficially for a while. Coincidence brings her into his bookstore and they
are delighted to learn that they have much to discover about each other.
also ties his work for the mysterious Mr. Smith and his consulting gig with Ray
together, leading to a classic detective novel finale in which the suspects are
all assembled at the bookstore so Bernie can explain the solution to the mystery
to him. Block even references Nero Wolfe as the model for this scenario. In
fact, Block mentions a lot of other crime authors over the course of the book,
most of them favorably, and even name-checks an infamously prolific Amazon
reviewer. It may also be useful to note that Block has chosen to skip the
traditional publishing model with this book, which he has self-published as an
eBook through Amazon (there is a limited edition for people who want a physical
Bernie is still a loveable rogue. As with his more modern analog,
Keller, the hit man, readers have little trouble rooting for a career criminal
as he plies his illicit trade. Block is an engaging writer, effortlessly
carrying readers along with him as he puts his characters through their paces.
He can even perform info dumps with a wink and a nod that make them more
tolerable than normal. Better still, once Bernie explains what happened in the
burgled apartment, many of the subtle clues he left early in the book make
sense, even if there is a sense that one particular detail feels a little too
coincidental for fiction. The resolution, though, may not satisfy all readers as
everyone isn't made to account for their sins, at least not in the socially
acceptable fashion. But then again, Bernie isn't exactly the best advocate for
the straight and true lifestyle.
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