Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block

I think Lawrence Block has a contrary streak, and I love that about him. His previous book about gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, The Burglar in Short Order, collected all of the Rhodenbarr short stories in early 2020, ending with a new metafictional piece in which Block talked with Rhodenbarr, basically saying that there would be no more Rhodenbarr novels. [1]

I assume Block meant it at the time. But, barely eighteen months later, he'd finished a new Rhodenbarr novel, The Burglar Who Met Frederic Brown, and published it himself not long after that. Is that protesting too much, or a writer's subconscious sending him unexpected Messages from Fred? Either way, I am definitely not complaining - and digging into anyone's creative wellsprings is tricky at the best of times. The point is: we all got a new book about Bernie, when we had no reason to expect one.

It's been nearly a decade since the last Rhodenbarr novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, but Bernie is the hero of a series of light mysteries, so time does not hang heavy on him. He might be slightly older than he was when we first met him in 1977's Burglars Can't Be Choosers, but not by all that much: he's still in the same phase of life, with all of the standard accouterments of the series that have grown up around him in the meantime: running the antiquarian store Barnegat Books; hanging out with his best friend, lesbian dog-groomer Carolyn Kaiser; feeding the store cat Raffles.

(See that post on Counted the Spoons for more: I covered the series set-up and the pleasures of the Burglar books there. This book is very much the same sort of thing, and I'll try not to repeat myself.)

Frederic Brown, though, is not quite in the same genre as the previous books in the series. There are two main clues in the book about this slight genre-shift: the title, since Brown was famed for a series of mystery novels and also for science fiction; and the dedication, to Robert Silverberg.

I probably shouldn't go into any more detail; the joy of a genre-shift is watching it happen, and seeing what comes next. But Bernie is reading Brown's What Mad Universe as this novel opens, and that is important.

Otherwise...this is a Bernie novel. It's got lots of sparkling dialogue between mostly Bernie and Carolyn, sneaky entrances to places where Bernie should not be and nearly as sneaky exits carrying valuable items that do not belong to him, appearances by the rumpled and not overly honest cop Ray Kirchmann, unexpected dead bodies, and a "you're probably wondering why I've called you all here" scene near the end. Some of those things happen in ways you would expect, some of them do not - Block, as always, is either fond of ringing changes on standard motifs or opposed to doing anything the same way twice.

There are other elements of this book that will surprise long-term readers; they surprise Bernie, too. I thought it all worked well, and was amusing and zippy, but I am a fan of both SF and light mysteries - people allergic to one or the other may not be as fond of this book.

Most importantly, this is a book that the author himself said, barely two years ago, probably would never exist. That it does is at least a minor triumph; that it's just as funny and entertaining as the previous books is even better. I probably wouldn't start the Burglar series here, but you've got eleven other novels to choose from - just pick one.

[1] As I recall, the reasons were one part "Block is now in his eighties and isn't promising anything" and one part "Rhodenbarr's skills are with mechanical locks and similar devices; CCTV cameras and electronics make those largely obsolete or insufficient."

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