Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


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.

In most 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. 

Coincidence 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 copy).

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.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2013. All rights reserved.