Friday, August 27, 2010

Review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block (No Exit Press, 1980)

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a skilled thief and safe breaker who has semi-retired and runs a rare and secondhand bookstore.  Two doors down, Carolyn Kaiser runs the Poodle Factory dog grooming parlour.  Kaiser is Rhodenbarr’s apprentice, but neither are career criminals, undertaking recreational burglary for the thrill and to pick up a bit of spending money. When Carolyn hears that the rich Colcannon’s are going to be away for a night, the pair decide to visit their swish Manhattan town house.  Only somebody got their first and has trashed the place.  The only pickings left are a semi-valuable print and whatever is in the safe.  What they find are a couple of pieces of jewellery and a single coin.  The next stop is Abel Crowe, holocaust survivor and fence, who identifies the coin as a valuable 1913 nickel, of which only six exist.  The true value is unknown, but a conservative estimate is at least $250,000.  They leave the coin with Crowe, but a short while later he’s murdered.  The question is, who killed him and who has the coin?

Block writes in a confident, easy style.  The premise is interesting in that Rhodenbarr doesn’t consider himself a ‘real’ criminal, but something of an honest rogue who has standards and ethics, and he invites the reader to identify with him and imagine playing a similar role.  The story is well structured and paced, but it feels formulaic and writing by numbers.  As such, I found it a little tired, with the story lacking bite; it all feels a little comfortable and cozy with no edge or tension.  Whilst there is reference to Spinoza and some flirting with philosophy this is a straight-up slice of entertainment.  Perhaps most frustrating plot-wise is a resolution that rests on a marginal coincidence, which is okay, but a little clunky.  What makes the book enjoyable are the characters, the gentle humour and the premise.  Rhodenbarr, Kaiser and Crowe work well together, and the other characters well penned.  Overall, entertaining enough to pass a couple of evenings, but doesn’t set one’s pulse racing.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved this series.

Richard R. said...

I keep thinking I'll read one of the Burgler Who... books but never seem to get to it. This may be the catalyst I needed, thanks.

Rob Kitchin said...

I've been told this is one of the weaker ones near the start of the series and the three that came before it are stronger. It was entertaining enough that I'd read another one and also other Block books.