Tuesday, August 03, 2021

The Burglar in Short Order by Lawrence Block

I admire and praise writers with a streak of orderliness. They're the ones who curate their own backlist, keep track of editions, push their books back into print almost as much for tidiness as for income. They also tend to want to collect the miscellaneous bits, too - if there's a drawer full of uncollected stuff, then the thing to do is collect it, right?

Lawrence Block, I believe, is one of those writers, or at least has become one at this era of his career. He's republished vast swaths of his very early backlist: quickie sex books, quickie crime books, and even some books that originally appeared under his actual name. [1] He's collected the uncollected in books like The Night and the Music (his Matt Scudder stories) and Hunting Buffalo With Bent Nails (miscellaneous nonfiction) and Afterthoughts (the afterwords from those self-re-published old books).

Last year, he did the same for another one of his series characters, Bernie Rhodenbarr, gentleman bookseller and burglar. The Burglar in Short Order collects thirteen previously published pieces related to his career - two are novel excerpts, the first story predates Rhodenbarr but prefigures him, a couple were vignettes written for newspapers, and one is non-fiction about the Burglar movie with Whoopi Goldberg - along with a new introduction and afterword.

(I say "he did," but, from a note on the copyright page, I think Subterranean Press may have had the idea first, or at least published a fancy edition slightly earlier. The paperback that I read, though, is not just written by Block but published by him.)

Bernie has been the hero of eleven previous comedic mysteries, most recently The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, in 2014. The obligatory disclaimer: no one should begin reading a series character who mostly lives in novels with the short, very miscellaneous collection his creator assembles from the back of a drawer in his early '80s. In other words: don't start here. Pick up Burglars Can't Be Choosers, the first book. Or maybe The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, where Block first assembled all of the elements that would be important for the rest of the novels.

If you have read all eleven novels, this is a nice bit of lagniappe, not least because of Block's discursive introduction about the writing and publication of the included pieces, and because of  his metafictional afterword, in which Block and Bernie discuss age, mortality, and whether there will ever be another Burglar book. (Almost certainly not.) If you are a Bernie fan, you will recognize the novel excerpts, and will likely have read some of the other stories: several have appeared in other Block short-story collections over the years. And I should note this is a short book: just over 180 pages. There was a not a lot of short Bernie material.

But this is the complete and definitive Shorter Rhodenbarr, which is a good thing. If you liked any of the novels, first read the rest of them. If you liked all of them, maybe look for this book.

[1] I think he's so far avoided republishing his fake-non-fiction books, in which he pretended to be a doctor - different fictional doctors for different books - to write about sex in a way that could be both scandalous and acceptable for publication. Those are probably hugely of their time, but I'm fascinated at the way the "really racy," borderline-pornographic material of a repressive era reads in latter, less repressed days.

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