Lawrence Block: The Burglar in the Rye

Either you like Lawrence Block’s dark, depressingly violent Matt Scudder books, or you prefer the light hearted and frequently very funny Bernie Rhodenbarr books. I confess I fall into the later category. I’ve long been a fan of Bernie’s, and having even re-read several of the early series books a few times I was more than delighted when Block brought Bernie out of hibernation. I loved The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams but was put off by The Burglar in the Library and hadn’t picked up another “Bernie” book until this one, an affectionate homage to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Almost everyone, I think, probably remembers the first time they read The Catcher in the Rye, and in Block’s deft and clever book, everyone remembers the fictional Nobody’s Baby, written by the fictional Gulliver Fairborn. Almost every character has occasion to say, in one way or another, “That book changed my life”. Bernie is on the hunt for some letters written by the ultra reclusive and mysterious Fairborn, but when he breaks into Fairborn’s agent’s apartment to “liberate” them, the agent is dead and Bernie has to leave empty handed.Though the plots in the Burglar books are almost always insanely clever, what’s really fun about them is the setting and the very real characters that Block chooses to populate Bernie’s world. There’s Bernie himself, bookseller by day, burglar by night (and I have to say in my early years of bookselling, Bernie’s choice was starting to seem like an excellent one); there’s Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer and Bernie’s best friend; there’s Ray, the insensitive, uneducated cop on the take, who nevertheless manages to figure out what’s going on; and of course each book has it’s own individual characters. In The Burglar in the Rye there’s a mysterious female who apparently lived for a brief time with Fairborn, and a charming retiree named Henry who wants to learn the bookselling game and who turns up out of nowhere to help out at the store just when Bernie can use it.

In this particular installment, lots of the humor comes when Carolyn, who has a new girlfriend, starts wearing make-up and wearing her hair long. She even puts on a skirt. The change is so funny, and so built on real affection for Carolyn, that it’s totally endearing. You just know Bernie’s love life is going to tank, just as you know that Bernie will probably get comfortably drunk (in ths book, everyone drinks Rye – get it?) with Carolyn and later Henry; and there’s lots of discursive little elements, not least of which is a description of the Paddington Hotel where Fairborn’s agent was in residence and where Bernie checks in to cover his burglary there. (And yes, it does involve Paddington Bear). These books deserve to be read, savored and appreciated as you might appreciate a delicious souffle by a master chef – light and skillful, they are a true delight, and The Burglar in the Rye is an especially strong and entertaining entry in the series.