Bernie Rhodenbarr is having a bad time. His two vocations, bookselling and burglarizing, are both hampered by vexing technological developments.
His bookstore often is reminiscent of a ghost town, with stretches of time in which no one ventures over its threshold, and when they do, they usually limit their activities to browsing the shelves, and then ordering their chosen book from Amazon or Ebay.
As for burglarizing, Bernie’s New York is now riddled with security cameras, annoyingly recording all movement, and electronic locks, which are invulnerable to Bernie’s nimble application of his lockpicking tools.
And there are other irritations. The neighborhood is gentrifying around Bernie, with local establishments going the way of the Dodo, and unsightly skyscrapers taking their place.
In the penthouse of one such building lives an unscrupulous multi-millionaire, who’s made his money the old-fashioned way – by buying the rights to a life-saving drug and then boosting its price. This villain’s prize possession is the Kloppmann Diamond, which he bought for sixty million dollars. Bernie would like nothing more than to liberate the diamond from the millionaire’s clutches, but the building is wired with the aforementioned cameras and electronic locks, so the desire must remain unfulfilled.
Still, not all is grim. Bernie is not hurting for money, he still has Carolyn, the lesbian dog groomer, for a best friend, and he has ample books to read.
One of them is What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown. Brown was a prolific writer of science-fiction and mysteries and was at his peak in the 1940s to ‘60s. The plot of What Mad Universe revolves around the existence of parallel universes.
One night, Bernie reads the book before turning in, and when he wakes up, he finds himself in an alternate universe, similar to the one from the day before, but with several improvements.
Okay, let’s stop here for a moment. You, dear reader, are perhaps wondering how such a premise fits a mystery novel. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have been a recipe for disaster. But Lawrence Block is not your everyday author. We’re talking about a guy who can write about everything and make it riveting. In the Keller series, Block’s protagonist, the hitman Keller, takes up stamp collecting. There are chapters in the Keller books devoted entirely to this pursuit. And when I was reading them, I kept thinking to myself: I’m not remotely interested in stamps, so why is this fascinating? But it invariably was. (Note to you, dear reader, get your hands on the Keller series).
Back to Bernie Rhodenbarr and his alternate universe. In this, better, world, several of Bernie’s favorite lost establishments are back in their place, there are no security cameras and no electronic locks, and, while there is an Internet, Amazon and Ebay do not exist.
All of a sudden, Bernie’s bookstore is teeming with book-buying readers, and all the doors in the world are once again susceptible to the persuasion of his picks.
And Bernie is not the only person who has made the leap from one world to the next. Carolyn, his best friend, has done so with him, and she has made some changes to the world as well, which I’ll let you discover in the book.
So this is the set-up, and quite a set-up it is. What follows is a story of burglarizing, murder (of the coziest kind), and an assortment of quirky characters. Mix them all together and what you get is a terrific crime novel that you can read in one or two sittings, and probably will. It’s been a while since I read such an original, witty, and entertaining novel. The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown is a wonderful book.
The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown is the twelfth appearance of Bernie Rhodenbarr, and you may be wondering if you should start at the beginning of the series and work yourself up to this novel.
I don’t think you’d go wrong either way. I’m a big fan of Block’s work, but I’ve only read the first three Bernie novels before this one, and that was a few years ago. And I was quickly immersed in the story and enjoyed it immensely. (Note to self: It’s high time to read the preceding books. What are you waiting for?). I believe you can jump right into the new novel, and you’ll soon find yourself swept up in the plot and marvelous prose.
But if instead you decide to read book one first, you can find it here: Burglars Can’t be Choosers.
Over the past several years, Block has repeatedly said he is unlikely to write another novel. Since then, he has published three of them. I can only hope that he keeps surprising himself for years to come.
I was honored to receive a pre-publication copy of this novel from Lawrence Block, Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase via them, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you.