Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sunday Special: Bernie Rhodenbarr Recommendation

(An incredibly rare post on an adult series here. While I try to limit this blog to YA, sometimes my enthusiasm overtakes me.)

I've got six reviews I need to write and two other posts I was meant to be doing today, but they've all gone completely out of my head after the news I've just seen over on Lawrence Block's website.

The news that Block is coming out of retirement is welcome enough. (I enjoyed Hit Me, about his stamp-collecting assassin Keller, but reading it was tinged with sadness after newspaper articles quoted him as saying "I have no idea if there will be a next book".) The swift return of one of the most prolific, and my own personal favourite, of all crime writers is a wonderful surprise.

But not just a new Block, but a new Bernie Rhodenbarr novel after nearly a decade? Truly, this is a miraculous day. Rhodenbarr is only my second favourite crime-solver ever (as amazing as he is, he's edged out by Block's hard-bitten private eye, Matt Scudder) but his novels are by far the most rereadable. They're cleverly-plotted and beautifully written cozy mysteries featuring Bernie himself - a burglar turned bookseller, his best friend Carolyn, a lesbian dog groomer, and Ray Kirschmann, a detective who Bernie refers to as "the best cop money can buy."

For those who haven't had the pleasure of meeting this trio before, Bernie is a gentleman thief who's addicted to the thrill that breaking and entering provides. He shuns violence, but has a tendency to find himself involved in murders, often as a suspect after he stumbles onto a dead body in the course of an otherwise routine job. This tends to lead to him, usually with help from Caroline, investigating the case himself to clear his name. There's generally a conclusion when Bernie calls all the suspects together, in classic crime fashion, to announce whodunnit.

That might sound rather formulaic, and to a point it is, but it's a winning formula thanks to the likeability of Bernie, Caroline and even Ray (in his own gruff, slightly crooked way). Block also gives us fiendishly clever plots and a host of interesting suspects, making them a true puzzle to read the first time around as it's nearly impossible to guess who commmitted the crime. (For me, at least - cleverer readers are given enough clues to work it out!)

What sets them apat from so many other mysteries, though, is Bernie's wonderful narration and the seductively film noir-ish dialogue which make these, more than any other crime stories, a pleasure to read again and again and again. Responding to a lady's query in the first book, Burglars Can't Be Choosers, "Do they really cut a person's hair that short when they send him to prison?", Bernie confirms it. "Ever since Samson pushed the temple down. They're not taking any chances." In The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart - perhaps the very best of the 10 novels - we find a taxi driver in fine form talking about the evils of doctors. "And after they blind you and cripple you, so that you've got no choice but to sue them, where do you have to go? To a lawyer! And that's worse!" As for the narration, at heart, Bernie is a philosopher and a pragmatist. In that same book, he explains about the problems of theft in "this age of credit cards and twenty-four-hour automatic teller machines. There are still people who keep large amounts of real money around, but they typically keep other things on hand as well, such as wholesale quantities of illegal drugs, not to mention assault rifles and attack-trained pit bulls. They lead their lives and I lead mine, and if the twain never get around to meeting, that's fine with me."

Another way in which Mrs Rhodenbarr's little boy, as Ray tends to refer to Bernie, triumps on rereadabiliy is the interchangeability of the novels. While part of the thing that make Matt Scudder so special is the character arc which sees him age and fight a battle against alcoholism throughout that series, and the relationships in his life, Bernie is seemingly ageless. The only real changes in his situation are than between books 2 and 3 he buys a bookshop, and meets Caroline. This means that while the Scudder books need to be read in order to get the full effect, the Bernie novels are perfect to dip into in any order you feel like.

So, the news of a long-awaited eleventh in the series, The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, has left me with just one decision - pre-order on Kindle for Christmas Day delivery at £6.37, or splash out and go to LB's website to get the signed and numbered deluxe hardback for about £65 including postage and packing to the UK. I have never in my life even considered spending over £20 on a book before, but this is one which might just be worth it, as a Christmas gift to myself...

If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting Bernie and the rest for yourself yet, check out the two omnibus editions which each collect 5 of the novels. They're a massive bargain at just £8.99 each on Kindle.

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