It’s some years since I read one of Lawrence Block’s crime novels, and then I’ve only read the first twelve of his seventeen Matt Scudder books. In this series alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator Scudder plies his trade around the shady joints of NYC. Scudder is a very likeable PI, but the books are quite dark.
Block has several other series, but apart from Scudder is mostly known for his ten novels featuring the gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, who also lives and works in NYC. The Rhodenbarr books are much lighter fare than Scudder, and Bernie is very much a modern day Raffles (see my Raffles review here).
The first in the series is Burglars can’t be choosers. Bernie can’t believe his luck when he is offered five grand to lift a blue leather box from a desk in a posh apartment by a chap who won’t give his name but seems strangely familiar.
I rode to the fourth floor, poked around until I found the stairway, and walked down a flight. I almost always do this and I sometimes wonder why. I think someone must have done it in a movie once and I was evidently impressed, bit it’s really waste of time, especially when the elevator in question is self-service. The one thing it does is fix in your mind where the stairs are, should you later need them in a hurry, but you ought to be able to locate stairs without scampering up or down them.
On the third floor, I found my way to Apartment 311 at the front of the building. I stood for a moment, letting my ears do the walking, and then I gave the bell a thorough ring and waited thirty seconds before ringing it again.
And that, let me assure you, is not a waste of time. Public institutions throughout the fifty states provide food and clothing and shelter for lads who don’t ring the bell first. And it’s not enough just poking the silly thing. A couple of years back I rang the bell diligently enough at the Park Avenue co-op of a charming couple named Sandoval, poked the little button until my finger throbbed, and wound up going directly to jail without passing Go. The bell was out of order, the Sandovals were home scoffing toasted English muffins in the breakfast nook, and Bernard G. Rhodenbarr soon found himself in a little room with bars in the windows.
Applying his lock-picking skills, Bernie is soon through the door, but there’s no box. Then two policemen burst in. Bernie is old friends with one, and has come prepared with ‘walkaway money’. The other younger cop isn’t so sure but takes the bribe, and goes to the bathroom only to come out shouting there’s a body in the bedroom and it’s still warm, or words to that effect, before fainting. Bernie runs, thinking he’s been framed.
He ends up at an acquaintance’s apartment. Rod, an actor, is away on an acting job, and once in Bernie prepares to lie low for a bit. However he is awoken by someone knocking over the plant by his bedside. She introduces herself as Ruth, come to water Rod’s plants. Ere long, Bernie has involved Ruth in his plans to clear his name, and the two also hit it off in the bedroom. The mystery turns out to be quite convoluted – I’d have never solved it. But Bernie sorts it all out in the end.
The crime isn’t the main thing in this novel however – it’s introducing Bernie. We get to know that he’s been in prison when younger, and that he doesn’t plan to go back. He does just enough jobs to finance his lifestyle, but is addicted to the thrill of the heist. I also have a feeling that he’ll have a different girl in every book.
Personally, I much prefer Scudder who is an essentially honest guy, but is more fallible with his own demons to fight too. Bernie is fundamentally dishonest – a slick thief who has a way with the ladies and is good at comic one-liners. He does have a redeeming feature though that I’ve yet to encounter … In the third book in the series, he takes over a bookshop, which he then keeps afloat with funds from his burglaries. That will keep me reading! (7/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Burglars Can’t be Choosers (Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery) by Lawrence Block, 1977. Currently o/p but s/h copies available.