Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review: Three-Fifths

Three-Fifths Three-Fifths by John Vercher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Pittsburgh during the winter of 1995 Bobby is a young biracial man passing for white who has never told anyone that his father was black. So when Bobby’s old buddy Aaron gets out of prison and shows up looking like a ‘roid monster with neo-Nazi tattoos, it’s not a great situation. It gets even worse when Aaron viciously beats a young black man, and Bobby unwittingly acts as his getaway driver. Terrified both of being arrested and of Aaron finding out his true heritage, Bobby also has to deal with his alcoholic mother who has a starling encounter of her own with a doctor who is struggling through a divorce.

When I attended the 2019 Bouchercon everyone was raving about this book, and I saw John Vercher a couple of times. After reading this now I’m kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to meet him.

I’m not sure if this is social commentary as crime fiction or crime fiction as social commentary, but whatever you call it, it’s a great book. In an incredibly tight 200 pages Vercher not only creates several vivid characters, but he also manages to make all of their backstory part of a personal mystery that revolves around exactly why Bobby is so committed to hiding the fact that he’s biracial.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review: The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Even back in the days before Amazon it was tough to turn a profit running a used bookstore so Bernie Rhodenbarr supplements his income by the occasional burglary job. When his best friend Carolyn has a hot tip about an easy score about some wealthy people being on an overnight trip it seems like easy money, but after breaking into their home Bernie finds that some other thieves have already hit the place. Still, he manages to find an uncracked safe with some loot inside so it seems like a successful heist with a potentially big payday thanks to a rare coin. However, the police soon pick up Bernie on suspicion of murder. How can a honest thief prove his innocence?

As I’ve noted in other reviews, this isn’t my favorite Lawrence Block series, and I wasn’t all that interested before because the stories aren’t actually about Bernie being a thief. Instead, his burglaries end up with him in trouble in with the cops for crimes he hasn’t committed, and he has to use his skills to solve a mystery. So this is actually an amateur detective series in disguise, and for a long time that didn’t work for me because I prefer my stories about thieves to be about stealing and not finding murderers.

However, after trying several of them I finally fell for Bernie’s charms, and that’s entirely due to Block’s talent. While these aren’t outright comedies they are meant to be funnier and lighter than Block’s other work, and Bernie does work as a likable guy who does have a certain code of honor even as he dearly loves stealing stuff. That’s all on display here with a solid whodunit plot for Bernie to unravel as he goes around breaking into places and having funny conversations with people.

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