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Lawrence Block
The Burglar on the Prowl
William Morrow/Harper Collins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-06-019830-3
Publication Date: 03-07-2004
293 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 04-12-2004
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004

Index:  Mystery

Wm. Morrow includes a list of Lawrence Block's other novels in the front of his latest "burglar" book; the list fits on a single page only because it's printed in the same small type most often used only for "fine print" contractual details no one wants you to see. Fifteen Matt Scudder novels, masterful, old-school hardboiled detective stories; eight Evan Tanner sleepless spy stories; four Chip Harrison books, Block's ode to Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe; a couple of Keller heartless hit man novels; and numerous other novels, short story collections, anthologies, and how-to books for writers. Oh, and ten, "the burglar who" books, featuring literate looter Bernie Rhodenbarr. The burglar books are Block at play — playing with language, plot, character and credibility in the story telling and playing with the world in general — political, social and literary — in the wonderfully rambling stream of consciousness asides that are themselves worth the price of admission.

If you've never read a burglar book, a little background is in order. Bernie Rhodenbarr is an antiquarian book dealer by day and a burglar by night. He's a man of exceptional taste, erudite, literate, sociable, voluble and exceptionally witty. Thievery is both his innate natural gift and the provider of his adrenaline-fueled natural highs. Burglary is a pastime he pursues with grand skill and only modest regret. "The fact that I evidently can't give it up doesn't mean I'm not well aware of the disagreeably sordid nature of what I do". Well, sordid maybe, but disagreeable, never. Bernie's thefts invariably lead him into unanticipated situations in which he must either solve a crime to save his ass, or solve a crime to put some other bigger, badder ass out of circulation. While Bernie's a criminal, he's not stealing purses from little old ladies. He filches from felons, or felons-in-waiting, and if, as occasionally happens, he makes a mistake and steals something from someone who ultimately doesn't deserve to have it stolen, well, he just puts it back.

In 'The Burglar on the Prowl', Bernie is asked by his old friend Marty Gilman to steal cash from the safe of a New York plastic surgeon, Crandall Roundtree Mapes, most often referred to as That Shitheel. The motive for Gilman's request is simple. That Shitheel has swiped his mistress and sweet revenge is the only salve. Just before taking care of the Shitheel break-in, Bernie, inexplicably antsy, goes on the prowl, breaking into the apartment of a female NY attorney who's awkwardly in the midst of a date rape. Bernie's awkwardly hiding under the bed for that event, and after the rapist leaves, he carefully replaces everything he's just stolen (except for a bit of cash), figuring the woman's had enough bad luck for one night. Block, making liberal use of the "long arm of coincidence", weaves roofies (the date rape drug), Latvia, the Black Scourge of Riga, NY mobsters, LBD (lesbian bed death), cops and other (non-Rhodenbarr) robbers into a wildly implausible and utterly delightful romp.

Block surrounds Bernie with a lively cast of recurring supporting characters; Caroline the loquacious lesbian dog-groomer and Bernie's best friend; Ray Kirshmann, the donut-snarfing not-so-dumb cop, and Raffles, his bookstore's Manx. And as with his other burglar stories, Block gives the reader not only the crime and its solution, but also an extra-credit smorgasbord of cleverly written riffs on this and that. A little history (Latvia's quest for independence), a little architecture (New York's brownstones), a little geography (the Bronx versus Manhattan), riffs on burglary and riffs on riffs themselves. All that, plus the always amusing and eagerly anticipated spoof of another contemporary mystery writer. Here, John Sanford's the target, with his new novel about a guy killing vegetarians called 'Lettuce Prey'. Every story is thickly infused with New York since Block's Rhodenbarr delights in the offbeat nooks and crannies ("or crannies and nooks") of New York, the city's eccentric characters, its subways, take-out deli's and bars.

Block's burglar books zip along with great humor, clever language ("as felonious as a monk") and wild doings wittily described. He writes playful, engaging and enjoyable stories of absolutely no significance, literary or otherwise, whatsoever. But they're frolicking good fun. Lawrence Block at play is a show well worth the price of a ticket.

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