Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Review: The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bernie Rhodenbarr is not happy about the state of the world. As a used bookseller his business has been pretty much destroyed by Amazon, and that used to be less of a problem because he made most of his money in his second job as a burglar. However, the modern world is now filled with surveillance cameras and various forms of electronic security that can’t be cracked with old school lockpicking. When a rich jerk buys a priceless diamond and brags about keeping it in a nearby penthouse, it’s a score that Bernie would have once jumped at, but one quick look convinces him that he wouldn’t even be able to get into the building.

Bernie grumbles about all this to his best friend Carol over drinks one night, and after going home he then tries to take his mind off it by reading a book by Fredric Brown about alternate universes. Something strange happens the next day though.

The world seems mostly the same, but Bernie’s Metrocard has now been changed to a Subway Card. Even weirder, his bookstore is now doing a brisk business and Amazon doesn’t exist. Bernie also quickly notices that there are far less security cameras and high tech locks around. Only he and Carol seem aware that there’s been any changes, and Bernie can only guess that somehow they’ve shifted to an alternate universe that is lot more hospitable to a guy who sells books and breaks into places. Maybe he could even now manage to steal a priceless diamond.

Getting a new <i>Burglar</i> novel at this point feels like a real treat precisely because of what Bernie himself is saying at the start of the story. It’s nigh on impossible to be a bookseller who just runs an actual store or be a professional burglar in modern times. So when the series is oriented around those as key traits of the main character, you’d think it’d be time to retire or maybe set the book in the past.

So it’s a delight that Lawrence Block found a loophole with the idea of alternate realities, and then just transplants the whole concept to one in which Bernie can not only exist, but thrive. It’s a little odd because Mr. Block isn’t really associated with sci-fi, and to just have this happen in a series that’s been set in ‘reality’ requires a regular reader to shift into a different gear. 

Yet it completely worked for me because the alt-universe thing isn’t the point, it’s just a way for Mr. Block to tell us a story with Bernie again. Not only that, the story eventually becomes a kind of meta-commentary in which Bernie starts to become self-aware about how a lot of his burglary jobs become complicated and involve him playing an amatuer sleuth. Most importantly, this still feels like a Bernie book with him having his conservations with Carol, trying to steal something, and solving a mystery in a low-key grounded kind of way.

Mr. Block has said that he’s retired from writing novels, but fortunately we exist in a reality where a new book like this can appear.

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