Monday, January 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #20: The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block

Time doesn't weigh as heavily on the heroes of humorous stories as it does on the rest of us: Bertie Wooster stayed a dull twenty-something for seven decades, and that most put-upon of criminals, John Dortmunder, was the same hang-dog middle-aged man from the late '60s through the mid-aughts. And so we're not surprised to see Mrs. Rhodenbarr's favorite son Bernie back again in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, still running the small old-fashioned shop Barnegat Books in Greenwich Village, still hanging out with his friend Carolyn Keiser, the lesbian dog groomer, and still breaking and entering to get valuables when finances or excitement require it. It may be thirty-plus years since Bernie first picked a lock in Burglars Can't Be Choosers, but he's still the same Bernie, and that's deeply satisfying.

Lawrence Block, once he found his voice and began publishing seriously under his own name, has always been a writer in love with dialogue, but the Rhodenbarr books give him even greater scope to indulge that than his other series and one-offs. (Matt Scudder may have long drinking night with Mick Balou, talking about this and that, but the plot always noses its way in -- the plots of Rhodenbarr books, being more frivolous, have no such entree.) So anyone looking for a sleek caper novel would be very much in the wrong series here: one of the primary joys of these books is Block's love of and facility for language, as characters -- most often Bernie and Carolyn, but always Bernie and someone -- bounce silly ideas off each other, riff on frivolous notions, and agreeably waste time.

That's all a way of saying that Counted the Spoons takes a long time to get to spoons at all, and also prepares the new reader for the experience: this is a great series of humorous mysteries, and Counts the Spoons is just as strong as the rest of them. But you don't read a Rhodenbarr book for the plot, but for Bernie's voice, and his relationship with Carolyn, and for the amusing things they all say and the fun lives they lead. And, of course, for the capers Bernie pulls, almost by the way, as the book goes on.

Counted the Spoons has most of the expected pieces of a Rhodenbarr book: new girlfriends for Bernie, new locks to pick and new buildings to sneak into and out of (carrying more out than in, of course), the rumpled Ray Kirschmann to represent the police, various valuable items and the people who want them, and at least one dead body, as usual placed dead center on a nice carpet. This time out, though, Ray doesn't try to pin that murder on Bernie -- which is nice, since Bernie was nowhere nearby, though his alibi isn't the strongest. Instead, Spoons has two plots that seem separate, as Bernie on the one hand pursues his larcenous line of work -- mostly for a fanatical collector of buttons and button-related material, whose checkbook is larger than his patience and morals -- and, on the other, consults for Ray on that dead body, which Ray and his cohorts on the force are ready to put down as natural causes.

But, as is inevitable in a mystery novel, those two plot strands are not separate, though the connection comes very late. So late, in fact, that the reader doesn't learn about it until the inevitable "you must be wondering why I've called you all here" scene that Bernie stage-manages in his store at the climax. If this was a series that hinged on the reader's ability to sift the clues and deduce the villain independently, this might be a problem -- but in this much funnier, more frivolous series, it's exactly what we should expect, and works brilliantly.

When I look back at the Rhodenbarr books, there's a clear pattern: four books published in quick succession, then a fifth another 3-5 years later, and then a decade-long hiatus. Since we've just been through another hiatus, I am going to assume -- perhaps "hope" is the better work -- that Counts the Spoons indicates another Rhodenbarr burst is upon us, and there will be more books over the next few years. I'll certainly be looking for them.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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