LAWRENCE BLOCK – The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. Random House, hardcover, 1980. Pocket, paperback, 1982. Reprinted many times since, including Signet, paperback, December 1998.
The copy I just read was a fairly recent Signet paperback from the 1990s, so it took me by surprise the first time Bernie Rhodenbarr, the bookshop owner in Greenwich Villagewho does a little burglary on the side, needed to find a phone booth to make a telephone call in New York City.
How many generations ago was 1980? Long before Google came along, that’s for sure. Think how much time Bernie could have saved making a whole series of long distance calls, trying to track down information about a rare coin called the 1913 V-Nickel.
Today, you could look it up. According to web page on the other side of the link, the coin, were you to burgle a home in Manhattan and find one, would be worth three to four million dollars, perhaps more.
And burgle a home in Manhattan and find one is exactly what Bernie and Carolyn Kaiser, his lesbian friend and oft-times confederate in crime, do. Soon ending up dead is Bernie’s good friend (and neighborhood fence), elderly Abel Crowe. Since the theft matches Bernie’s MO, the police suspect him for not only that killing, but also the death of the wife whose home was robbed. One problem: Bernie and Carolyn were the only the second of three sets of burglars that night.
Which means there are a lot of characters to keep track of, even more than this brief outline of the story might suggest. But Bernie tells the story in such a light, humorous way, punctuated by witty observations about the city and its inhabitants, that the pages simply fly by in very enjoyable fashion.
Until that is, page 223 of a 302 page novel, when the shark is jumped or the pooch is tipped or whatever the current vernacular may be. Now this is between only you and me, and it may be only me, but up until that time I got the idea that Bernie and I were buddies, and he was keeping me informed of everything he wa seeing and doing.
But on page 223 he suddenly cuts me out of the picture. He tells Carolyn who he thinks did it. Reluctantly, to be sure. It takes until page 224 before she convinces him to tell her everything. Me, nothing. And here I thought we were friends.
Of course, I really didn’t want him to tell me, but why Carolyn? I was disappointed.
It also put a strain on Bernie in the pages that follow. Doing this and that, going here and there, making those phone calls to who knows who, and not being able to tell me what it was that he was doing. It’s not until one of those “gather everybody together in one place” that Bernie reveals the truth and gets the killer (or killers) to confess.
And of course a book by Spinoza takes its rightful place in the denouement, exactly as the title says it would.
The Bernie Rhodenbarr novels —
Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (1977)
The Burglar in the Closet (1978)
The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979)
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza (1980)
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983)
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994)
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart (1995)
The Burglar In The Library (1997).
The Burglar In The Rye (1999)
The Burglar on the Prowl (2004)
The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons (2013)
PostScript: I do not know what kind of name Rhodenbarr is — Googling it turned up only six full pages of Bernie’s before I gave up. Perhaps Lawrence Block simply made it up. That plus the fact that Bernie tells the story himself makes it difficult to put a face to the character. I do not know who should play him in the TV series I have in mind.
One thing for sure. It won’t be Whoopi Goldberg.