I’ve been feeling bad that I don’t give series I’ve loved the attention they deserve on the blog. Often I don’t review because I’ve binged them and then can’t quite remember what happened in which book. Or, worse, the one book I end up reviewing is my least favourite in a series but I feel obliged to write about it because I’ve had an advance copy. So I thought I’d write from time to time about whole series I love, rather than reviewing specific titles.
Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr books are my current favourite comfort read. Block is a prolific writer, best known for his gritty noir series featuring private investigator Matt Scudder. In these novels, which usually have The Burglar … in the title, he takes a more light-hearted and playful approach to the genre.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is an antiquarian bookseller with an addiction to burglary. During the course of each novel, something will inspire him to commit an audacious burglary. At some point – quite often at the scene of the crime – he’ll run across a body. He’ll come under suspicion of murder, or there will be some other pressing reason why he will have to identify the killer himself.
The joy in these books isn’t so much the plots, although they run as sweetly as Bernie’s lock-picking, but in the time spent with the characters. Bernie is a reflective soul, who has no moral justification for his crimes, but they are his life’s passion. He is a talented and devoted practitioner of his craft. (You also get some very specific insights into how to commit apparently impossible burglaries, I wonder if anyone has ever made use of them?)
In the first two books, although his distinctive voice is already there, we don’t have much of a sense of what Bernie does when he’s not embroiled in crime. But from the third book onwards, Bernie’s life (leaving aside the burglary) is an appealing one for many readers – he runs a bookshop in Greenwich Village, keeps his own hours and spends lunchtimes and most evenings with his best friend, dog-groomer Carolyn Kaiser, visiting bars and riffing on literature and life in general, from Austrian pastries and rare coins (Spinoza) to butterflies and art fakes (Mondrian). In Rye there’s a reclusive novelist whose one notable work changed the life of many a reader, including a young Bernie.
Bernie also has some great repartee with his frenemy, brazenly corrupt and lazy cop Ray Kirschmann, a man with a fine line in malapropisms. Ray is usually happy to overlook Bernie’s criminality, in return for him doing his job for him.
The books, like the Matt Scudder novels, have a great sense of place, exploring the different corners of New York from luxurious apartment blocks and well-guarded museums to offbeat cafés and jazz clubs. (This is perhaps why Library didn’t work quite as well for me, because it takes Bernie and Carolyn away for the weekend, to a country house hotel.)
Most of all, I love the way these books both celebrate and parody crime fiction, from cosy to noir. There are clues and red herrings. There’s invariably a clever and beautiful woman who mysteriously appears, promising hot passion but delivering deception. There’s the inevitable set-piece denouement where Bernie untangles the mystery after assembling all the participants in the affair. All done with Lawrence Block’s characteristic dry wit and distinctive voice.