The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“The growth of intimacy is like that. First one gives off his best picture, the bright and finished product mended with bluff and falsehood and humor. Then more details are required and one paints a second portrait, and a third--before long the best lines cancel out--and the secret is exposed at last; the panes of the pictures have intermingled and given us away, and though we paint and paint we can no longer sell a picture. We must be satisfied with hoping that such famous accounts of ourselves as we make to our wives and children and business associates are accepted as true.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
It’s okay Fitz. Bernie and I will just have to agree to disagree.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is not convinced of the first, second or third portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is convinced that Fitzgerald is an overblown writer.
I know and I like Bernie...a lot.
Bernie is the owner of Barnegat Books and is suffering from the same woes that any bookstore owner does in the changing climate of book commerce. The internet is killing his business, and then there are those last straw moments. A young lady comes into the bookstore trying to remember an author, browses Bernie's shelves, and discovers the author is Frank Norris. She checks her kindle and finds she can buy it cheaper digitally, and downloads the book.
Thanks Mr. Bookseller. Thanks a lot.
Let me explain a little etiquette to those of you who use brick and mortar bookstores to discover the books that you want to buy. Do not, after a bookseller has spent time helping you to find the books you want, download the books to your kindle RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. Have the decency to step outside or maybe wait until you get home. Second, if you need a brick and mortar bookstore to help you find the right books, spend some money with them. You, like everyone else, who needs and wants brick and mortar bookstores to continue to exist, need to contribute to their financial well being. They are not a charity organization. They need to make money to continue to turn the CLOSED sign to the OPEN sign.
Now I would say that Bernie is busted on this one except I’d bet good money that hammer has been wiped clean.
Lucky for Bernie he has a night job. He is a burglar, a gentleman burglar in fact. His friend, a cop with sticky fingers, Ray Kirschmann, explains.
”Besides bein’ a thief to the core, another thing you’ve always been is a gentleman.”
“Why thank you, Ray That’s nice of you to say.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “You’re still a lowlife deadbeat who breaks into people’s houses and steals their stuff. But at the same time you’re the last of the gentleman burglars. You wouldn’t believe the kind of scumbags who’ve been moving into your profession.”
“I can imagine.”
“Instead of takin’ the trouble to learn the art and science of pickn’ a lock. they kick the door in. Instead of tiptoein’ through a house, they wake up the occupants and force ‘em to turn over their valuables.”
When Ray hits a stumbling block on a case, especially a case involving breaking and entering he will use Bernie as a consultant. He can’t pay him, but he doesn’t have a problem if Bernie nicks something from the crime scene overlooked by those thuggish, less cultured, thieves.
Bernie has a cat named Raffles, named after the burglar in the book by E. W. Hornung. He has a lesbian sidekick named Carolyn who runs a grooming palace for dogs. They take turns buying lunch and since she knows about his night time prowls he can safely discuss his latest adventures with her. She will even occasionally provide him with some much needed help with things such as surveillance as long as the next love of her life does not prove to be too much of a distraction.
Now you might be wondering why I mentioned Fitzgerald and Bernie’s rather erroneous assessment of his writing abilities. Well, see, it has to do with Mr. Smith. He is a button man, collects all things buttons. In fact when he first meets with Bernie he is sporting a William Harry Harrison campaign button on his lapel. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too
In the 1840 election the Whig party made much of William Henry Harrison being born in a log cabin, so all his campaign buttons reinforced that image of his humble start. He was the first president to die in office.
Mr. Smith is not interested in Bernie Rhodenbarr bookseller. He is interested in Bernie Rhodenbarr gentleman burglar. Smith’s button collecting has evolved beyond just physical buttons. He wants to add a particular short story of Fitzgerald’s to his collection. You might be able to guess it. Hollywood made a movie starring Brad Pitt. Ah yes:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The story is so “poorly written” it gives Bernie the shivers. Smith is not a big fan either, but when he discovers the original manuscript is in a local New York museum he has to have it. Another BUTTON for his collection. Stealing the manuscript from this museum is like taking candy from a baby when you have the skill set of Bernie Rhodenbarr.
Smith wants more. He has a particular fondness for one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a gentleman by the name of Button Gwinnett. Smith covets a spoon that depicts the image of Gwinnett that is currently owned by a reclusive collector in the city. This one gets complicated.
This portrait of Button Gwinnett might be the clue to help solve Ray’s case. Gwinnett signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative of Georgia. In 1777 he was killed in a duel with his arch nemesis Lachlan McIntosh.
Meanwhile Bernie has someone who really wants to shop in his store. In fact she is leaving him notes every time she arrives to find the closed sign on the door.
”GONE AGAIN! I SNUCK OUT OF WORK AND STILL NO LUCK. SOMEBODY LEFT YOU TWO DOLLAR BILLS. GOOD THING I AM HONEST. I PUT THEM WHERE THEY WON’T BLOW AWAY. CZECH AROUND AND SEE.”
Yeah that isn’t a misspelling, but a clue for Bernie.
When Bernie is closed, setting the stage for a traditional Agatha Christie reveal with all the suspected characters in attendance, he misses his elusive customer again.
”CLOSED? WHAT DO YOU MEAN CLOSED??? YOUR LIGHTS ARE ON AND I KNOW YOU ARE IN THERE! YOU HAVE A BOOK I NEED!! BUT YOU ARE NEVER OPEN!! JUST FOR THAT I AM STEALING CZECHOSLOVAKIA!!! TOMORROW I WILL COME BACK FOR LONELY PLANET GUIDE TO ATLANTIS!!!”
I believe that Bernie was just complaining about not having enough customers. Here is one with her tail on fire trying to get in and he is too busy with his daytime issues from his night time activities to let her extinguish that flaming desire with the soothing balm of the right book.
Booksellers do have responsibilities... damn it.
It has been ten years since I’ve read a Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery because Lawrence Block has been writing books that make him more money such as his celebrated Matthew Scudder series. Whenever opportunity has presented itself I have harassed (the restraining order has expired) Block to write another Bernie. We’ve exchanged emails. I’ve left poignant Bernie love letters on Block’s facebook page. Finally I must have worn him down.
Well probably not.
If I were to guess I would say that Block missed Bernie too. Missed him in fact so much that he self-published this book. I wouldn’t be surprised if more big name authors become self-publishers in the future. In this book you will learn about apostle spoons, how to fool a burglar, silversmithing, forgotten founding fathers, agoraphobia, what happens when you don’t pay a burglar, entering without breaking, peanut allergies, and be exposed to hilarious intelligent playful banter. If you have never read a Bernie before this is actually a good one to start with. If you like this one, which you will, then you can go back and read the other ten entries in the series. Welcome back Bernie and thank you Lawrence Block.
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