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JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU KNEW BERNIE...




Lawrence Block has long been one of my favorite writers. I loved reading his monthly column in Writer’s Digest. Those pieces kept me excited about the prospect of writing, which I was determined to do, and offered me succinct and sage advice—most of which I attempted at one time or another.


When I was busy discovering so much of the series fiction written in the 1970s and 1980s, Block’s Matt Scudder unlicensed private eye novels were in the mix. I’d joined a mystery book club at the time, and Block’s novels were almost always among the featured selections, and I ordered them every time they came up.


I was a little skeptical with the Bernie Rhodenbarr Burglar novels, because Bernie was neither a necessarily good guy, nor was he a rough-and-tumble private eye like I loved. I mostly preferred Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, and others I discovered along the way.


Bernie was different, so it took me a while to warm up to him and his adventures. However, I grew up from that teenaged kid bound on a journey of exploration and became a seasoned reader with a lot more life experiences under my belt. Along the way, Bernie became a friend.


Block’s writing in the Burglar, like that of McGee, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, takes the reader into the characters’ private camps and revealed all the thinking and emotional complexity that made those heroes so compelling. It’s the same kind of writing that made Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlyle and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone so interesting.


Through Bernie, readers get a true New Yorker view of that metropolis and the people who live there. At least, the view is true in my mind. Bernie loves the city, and that attraction shows through his lens every time he tells his story.


The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown is a slightly misleading title. Fredric Brown, the author, died in 1972, so he definitely wasn’t around for this latest tale, which is told—more or less—in the present day. Brown could have crossed paths with Block, but that didn’t happen either.


The title springs from the title of one of Brown’s more notable novels, What Mad Universe? In that book, which Bernie is reading, all manner of weird things happen.


And they happen in Bernie’s world as well. He gets up the next day and discovers the whole world has changed. The Metrocard he’s carried for years to use on the subways is now called the SubwayCard, Amazon no longer exists, and CCTVs and electronic locks have disappeared.


The world has gotten a little more user-friendly for our favorite burglar, but he’s aware of the changes, and that is unsettling. His best friend, Carolyn, a dog groomer and frequent companion on his adventures, is also aware of the changes. Which is weirder still.


I don’t want to talk too much about the plot because I will give too much away that readers need to discover for themselves. Block is always entertaining, and this one, with all its twists and turns, could easily be a Rian Johnson Knives Out production that involves stories within stories.


Along the way to solving an out-of-this-world mystery, Block regales his readers with authors and book titles and quotes that are an absolute delight to a well-read mystery-loving audience. There are nods to fellow writers, past and present, and introductions New York past and present. There’s also a trip down memory lane for anyone who has read the Burglar books over the years.


If the title makes you wonder what in the world Block is doing with this latest installment, rest assured that he’s playing in worlds. This is a master of the game at one of his finest hours.


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