Burglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block (b. 1938) was first published in 1977. It is the first in his series that stars Bernie Rhodenbarr. As Block tells it, the story was written during a time when he was undergoing a rough time as a writer, etc. I think the story is that he was moving around the country from NYC to various points and finally he finished the thing in Greenville, SC. At that time, Block did not anticipate writing other Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. (I think there are now thirteen in this series.)
I bought my paperback copy used for $1 years ago. It is probably truer to say decades ago. At least 2004, let’s say. I just never felt like actually reading it before now. It has a ridiculously bright orange cover that just screams for attention, but Block is not for everyone. I think I own a stack of his novels around here somewhere; maybe having read this one will lead to more. I have read Hit Man, but I need to re-read it because I think I enjoyed it, but I cannot remember it and I would like to read the rest of that series. I am, obviously, going to live to be 450 years old.
The good: this is a feisty, fast-paced novel that can be read very quickly. There is some wit, some ribald stuff, and a dash of seriousness. Overall, this is one of Block’s lighthearted comical novels. I think I even liked how the ending played out and I found the bad guys consistent.
The bad: this novel is dated. So much of it just would not and can not take place anymore. So much of this novel becomes impossible/irrelevant with the technology we have today. I can take this displacement, but readers born 2000+ are probably going to be a wee bit frustrated with this novel.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is, for the most part, a self-made burglar. He taught himself lockpicking and basic skills for the job of burgling people. He has been to jail for his activities, though, so he does not have some magical perfect record. He does not go in for violence and destruction. He feels bad when he is outed at his residence, a NYC apartment building. He has an honest respect for the police that rather evens the playing field for Block’s storyline. He is also a Gemini, just so you know.
This novel can make a case for being a type of “locked-room” mystery. Maybe not exactly to definition, but it has elements that would fit in that category. The main point of the story is that Bernie is discovered by cops while burgling a place – and there is a dead guy in the place. Bernie is also, clearly, as dashing and handsome a fellow as any woman could want, because both of the female characters in the novel definitely throw themselves at him. Again, this is part of, I think, Block’s writing, the genre, and the expectations for airport novels in the 1970s.
The reader does not get all of Bernie’s thoughts, which is how the story gets to its conclusion. Bernie figures everything out and then lets us all know. I think the astute reader will put together who did what and when. There are not a lot of red herrings or misdirection in this one. Further, some of the elements have a “too obvious” feel to them when they happen. Nevertheless, this is a fast-paced lighter-side novel, not a dark noir. So, all of Bernie’s wit feels normal and carries along the storyline even when it does seem utterly unlikely.
For the most part the story is conversation – either between characters or the thoughts in Bernie’s head. There is not a whole lot of prose used on description or background. This keeps the 289 pages flipping quickly and the reader does not have time to forget any detail or get sidetracked. Zipping to the end there is not much substance to the novel; and there is too much, I guess, of that 70s swagger to it.
There is nothing here to hand out awards for since it is just a speedy NYC tale. Its not something, maybe, you give to your friend who only reads the purist, cleanest fiction, but everyone else should be able to handle it. Crime-light, if you will.