Gentleman burglar and bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr is back in The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown (2022) the 12th installment of this superb mystery series by Lawrence Block. It’s a book I never expected to read, because Block (who turned 84 earlier this year) has said for a while that he was done with the series. So when this book was announced, it was like a little gift to everyone who loves spending time with Bernie; his best friend Carolyn, a dog groomer; and his nemesis, police detective Ray Kirschmann.
For the uninitiated: Bernie’s MO has always been stealing luxury items like coin collections, jewelry and the like from rich people. He prefers to work in empty apartments, not being a fan of confronting an angry homeowner with a weapon, and yet in the cases Block chronicles he nonetheless manages to end up entangled in a murder and needs to solve the crime in order to remove suspicion from himself.
Early in this latest book, we learn that Bernie has gone straight, but not willingly: The modern surveillance state, with its CCTV cameras at every door and the increasing use of digital lock technology, means his considerable skill at lockpicking and charming/fooling doormen no longer work. Things aren’t much better on the antiquarian bookselling front, as increasingly his customers browse the shelves in his store before going online and ordering the books at a lower price from Amazon. His best customer, in fact, is a young man who used to sell bags of used books to Bernie, but now buys books from Bernie to sell online at a profit.
Bernie and Carolyn are lamenting these developments one night over drinks in a neat bit of exposition and setup that Block’s skillful dialogue and characterization saves from being kludgy. Bernie goes home to finish the book he’s currently reading, Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, which involves a character who is transported to a parallel universe.
The next morning Bernie slowly comes to the realization that somehow he himself (and Carolyn, thankfully) have been transported to a parallel universe, where most things in his beloved New York City are the same but other things are different. He realizes that the things that have changed are the very things he was complaining about the night before — there are no more surveillance cameras or massive online bookstores, and the Bowl-Mor has been restored to its rightful place in the neighborhood. Indeed, the stage is set for a return to Bernie’s former occupations, except for one thing: The Bernie Rhodenbarr who existed in this universe before our Bernie and Carolyn arrived has already pulled a job that resulted in murder, and this universe’s Ray Kirschmann is determined to finally tie Bernie to a crime.
The addition of a science-fiction element to the familiar Bernie mystery might seem a bit odd, but I was impressed at how Block seamlessly integrated the two genres. And it was a brilliant stroke of genius, because transporting beloved characters into a world that rolled back technological advances to a time when Bernie’s particular skillset could thrive might be the only way that readers could enjoy one more romp with Bernie & Co. (I suppose Block could have done something similar to what he did in his also superb but very different Matthew Scudder series, and have present-day Bernie telling a story from the past, but why repeat oneself when one has a chance to create something wholly original?) I also appreciated that the parallel universe wasn’t just a gimmick to let Bernie once again do his thing; the over-arching plot is one that could only exist in a parallel universe where our Bernie finds himself on the hook for a crime committed by another version of himself. Neat!
Is the ending perhaps a little too pat, and are some thorny plot points somewhat glossed over in the wrap-up? I’d have to say that’s a fair observation, but at the same time (in a parallel universe?) it just didn’t matter at all. Bernie was back, perhaps for the last time (I’ve learned not to count out Block’s amazing productivity) and this longtime reader was just happy to see him. No gun in my pocket, I swear.