There are times during The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons where our protagonist, Bernie Rhodenbarr, laments that he doesn’t want anything to change. He wants everything to continue on just the way it is. We who love the Burglar books want the same thing. There’s just one problem: things change whether we want them to or not.
And yet… Lawrence Block manages to address both issues at the same time and does it brilliantly. This is the book Block wrote after he decided to retire, so at this point, anything he comes out with is gravy, and his fans would pick it up regardless – but he doesn’t rely on that. Instead, he gives us a Burglar book which addresses the idea of change and the idea of status quo and still delivers a first rate mystery in his classic style.
If you’re familiar with the series, of which this is number 11, all the elements are present. Carolyn Kaiser, Ray Kirschman, the various places of employ and relaxation and, well, the Two Guys from… restaurant, which delivers the best surprise of the bunch (okay, it doesn’t deliver, you have to pick it up, but that’s splitting hairs). In every sense, this is a perfect Bernie story. He commits crimes, he solves crimes, he has witty banter with everyone, he gets laid (Good on ya Bern!) and he’s instantly recognizable as the same guy who first appeared in 1977.
Except he’s not the same guy. Block doesn’t let Bernie age (this isn’t series for that – that’s his Scudder books, which are also amazing, but playing in a different ballpark) but the world around him does. No longer can Bernie merely walk around a building, now he has to deal with security cameras. He doesn’t look up information in encyclopedias, but Googles them instead. He learns about burner phones and Internet book dealers. In this way, Bernie has already changed with the times but he’s still the same old Bernie.
All the while, Block is also taking us all on a trip down memory lane. He references a number of past adventures (no harm if you haven’t read them, although what are you waiting for?) which leads us to a rather interesting observation made by Carolyn near the end of the book regarding Bernie’s night time activities and his interesting relationship with law enforcement. It’s something we, as readers have obviously seen (that’s why we keep reading) but by having Ms. Kaiser point it out, and Bernie to flat out reject its implications, is a wonderful nod to the fluid nature of the books and their own internal reality.
Enough of that, though, this book stands on its own quite nicely. As a former rare book seller, I greatly appreciated the insight into that world, especially the peek behind the curtain of original holographs and association copies and the shout out to Button Gwinnett, the unsung hero of Founding Father collectibles is priceless (almost literally). The way the various threads of the plot tie together make for a characteristic Rhodenbarr “wondering why I called you all here” unraveling with a certain moral ambiguity we love to see in our favorite burglar.
Finally, there’s “Juneau Lock,” the mythical location of great Chinese food and one of the reasons why these books and characters are so great to return to time and again. While it has nothing at all to do with the main mystery, it has everything to do with the lives of our heroes. And in the end, that’s really what we’re interested in and why keep checking back. We want to see how the gang is doing, even if they never change. We do, and we can appreciate them on new levels every time. So whether or not this is the final adventure we read about, we’re left with the impression this is certainly not the final adventure Bernie will be having. And that makes me happy.