Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons -- Lawrence Block

I've been reading the novels of Lawrence Block since, well, I can tell you almost exactly how long.  One evening in 1966, Judy and I were driving on Burnet Road in Austin, Texas.  I don't know why we were out, but we stopped at a little convenience store for some reason.  I don't remember the reason for that, either.  Maybe we wanted a candy bar.  What I do remember is that just inside the store there was one of those paperback spinner racks of fond memory, and I could never pass one of them without looking to see what was there.  In this case there was a copy of a Gold Medal paperback called The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep.  

I liked the title, so I read the blurbs.  Sounded good, and though I was unfamiliar with the author, I'd never gone wrong with a Gold Medal book before.  So I bought it.  After I read it, I bought every book I saw with Block's name on it, so I must've been impressed.  Well, I know I was impressed.  I liked that whole series a lot, and I discovered that I liked everything I found with Block's name on it. 

For some reason I have clear memories of buying a couple of others of Block's books.  Okay, more than a couple.  In the middle '70s, Texas still had "blue laws," which meant that stores couldn't be open on Sundays.  However, there were exceptions for places like drugstores, so the Walgreen's in Brownwood, Texas, was open on Sundays.  They had part of the store cordoned off, however, because even though the store was open, only certain "necessary" items could be sold.  I don't know if the book rack was cordoned off or not, but I do know that one Sunday I found myself in front of that rack, and there was The Sins of the Fathers, the first book in the Matthew Scudder series.  I bought it that day, though I was afraid the cashier would call the cops on me.  That didn't happen, though, and I bought the other Scudder paperbacks as they came along.  I even have an impressive collection of the Scudder hardcovers.

Also while in Brownwood I would occasionally get those catalogs that sold remaindered books.  They were on newsprint, and the type was very small.  In one of them I saw a listing for something called Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man by "L. Block."  It was only a buck, and I figured, "How many L. Blocks can there be?"  So I took a chance, and it paid off.  It would've paid off a lot better if I'd bought ten or twelve copies, since I think that one's pretty pricey now.

I bought Random Walk at some convention in Omaha.  Don't remember if it was the Bouchercon or another one, but I bought it off a rack at Steve Stilwell's table in the dealers' room.  I'm sure Stilwell wasn't there.  He's never at his table.  But someone sold it to me.  Stilwell has his minions.  

And then there was that time in Ft. Worth, when . . . well, I could go on like this, but I won't.  Let me just say that I still have all those books, and a great many more.  My only regret is that I didn't know Block was writing under all those other names he used.  I would've bought those books, too, but by the time I found out about them, the books were a little too costly for a simple guy like me.  Many of them are available now as eBooks, though, for not very much dough.

But enough of all this nostalgia.  It's time for my comments on The Burglar who Counted the Spoons, the latest in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, which I've enjoyed a great deal over the years.  Except my comments immediately turn into nostalgia again because the great opening scene has a young woman in Bernie's bookshop looking for a copy of The Pit by Frank Norris.  How many people do you think there are who have read The Pit?  McTeague, sure, quite a few.  The Octopus, to which The Pit is a sequel, maybe, but not as many as have read McTeague.  And The Pit? I figure I'm one of a tiny group on that one.  And let's go beyond that.  How many people know that The Pit was turned into a Broadway play and that a once-popular card game (ever play Pit?) was, too?  If I hadn't told you, then I'd be in an even tinier group.

What I really like about the scene is that the young woman doesn't buy the book when she finds it.  She checks out the Internet and discovers that she can get it for $2.99 (which isn't really such a good deal because Amazon has it for free -- you could get it yourself and join the small group of us who've actually read it).  You know what ticks me off?  That free book has two reviews, which is more than my books usually get.  That tells us something about how small the group of my readers is.

Okay, I seem to have digressed.  What about The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons?  Well, it's great.  Here are some of the things I like best about it, aside from that opening scene.  I like it that Bernie calls the copy of the The Pit the young woman buys (her name is Chloe, and she appears again) the eQuivalent of the real thing.  I like it that Bernie talks a good bit about collectible books.  I like it that Bernie comments about novels by several current mystery writers.  I like it that there's a lot of other collecting stuff in the book.  My theory is that any collector can understand the obsession of another collector, even if they collect different things.  So whether it's books or buttons, it's fun to read about it.  I like Bernie and Carolyn's discussions of any number of subjects.  I like the Harriet Klausner reference.

There's a good bit of burgling in the book, and of course there's a murder, even though for a while it doesn't appear to have been one.  There's the traditional gathering of the suspects, and I really liked it that Bernie checked out Nero Wolfe's seating arrangement in Might As Well Be Dead and got so caught up in it that he figured it was time to read it again.  And there's the unraveling of the more-complex-than-you-might-have-thought plot, along with the unconventional aftermath of the solution.

Bernie is always excellent company, and his narration's always a pleasure to read.  Add in the snappy patter, the humor, the smooth plotting, and you have another big winner for Lawrence Block, who's chosen to publish this book himself rather than go the traditional route.  I hope he makes a bundle.


Anonymous said...

OK, you know you didn't have to sell me on this one. I've been reading Block a good long time - not quite as long as you have perhaps, but then I'm younger. This one definitely goes on the list.


Kevin R. Tipple said...

In my pile but I have not gotten to it yet.

Barry Ergang said...

I worked for a small local bookstore for a few years back in the 80s. The owner and I would occasionally go to used-book stores and find titles to sell in addition to the new books we stocked. It was on one of these forays that I found a copy of Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man. I read it, then urged it on the owner and another co-worker, both of whom loved it. It was listed in Books in Print, so I contacted the publisher, hoping to order copies to sell. Unfortunately, it wasn't available.

Subterranean Press reissued the book some years back, and I bought a copy, but I believe that edition is out of print now, too. There is, however, a Kindle edition available. ( To anyone reading this comment, if you enjoy raunchy hilarity, get a copy of this book.

George said...

Your memory is way better than mine. I can remember buying some specific books, but not a whole catalog of one writer! I'm a fan of Lawrence Block's work, too. One of my big regrets is not buying up a ton of Midwoods when I ran across them in Canada for a dime each. I'm sure many of them were Lawrence Blocks.

otherdeb said...

Sadly, in 1966, LB was a ways down the road for me. It was my first year of high school, and I was devouring anything I could get my hands on by Harlan Ellison at the time, thanks to a friend of mine named Neil Lubell.

I first met LB when we were both doing a reading at a no longer extant bookstore called Science Fiction, Mysteries and More, in downtown Manhattan. Block read a Bernie story, and I was hooked.

In fact, one of the best readings I ever went to was a joint reading by Block and Robert B. Parker at the now defunct Mercantile Library, a private library in Midtown Manhattan. That reading ended up turning into a Q & A session for writers, and was just the best birthday present I could have given myself.

Needless to say, I have since read everything of Block's that I could get my grubby little hands on. His book about Racewalking? Check. His books about writing? Some of the best I've read. His short stories? Everyone I can get my hands on. Keller? Scudder? Chip Harrison? Ehrengraf? Evan Tanner? Yep. His book about philately? Yep, again. And there is not a bum shot among them, although, like everyone else, I have my favorites.

This new one is pre-ordered already, and I have been forcing myself to not read the little glimpses that have been appearing. I wish Block a long, happy, fruitful unretirement!