Feb 19, 2009
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One day in the waning years of the last century, my friend Linda S loaned me the book Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. This small act has had a big impact. This book introduced me to Bernie Rhodenbarr and his creator, the author Lawrence Block. Over the course of a decade, he has become firmly entrenched as my favorite writer.
Block has several majors characters, and I ended up reading dozens of his books. First, let’s take a look at his characters.
Bernie is a bookstore owner. He is also a part time burglar (thus all of his books contain that word). Bernie is semi-retired from the profession (mostly due to a distaste from the “free government housing” fringe benefit of the job). Nowadays, Bernie only takes the occasional job from a friend (or friend of a friend).
Unfortunately for Bernie, he has a tendency to stumble across murders, and usually ends up as the prime suspect. He has to figure out who the real killer in order to get off the hook.
Bernie’s books also feature his friend Carolyn (a lesbian who owns a pet grooming service) and his cat, Raffles. The books are very funny, and are my favorite of Block’s books.
There are ten books in the Burglar series, published between 1977 and 2004. I have read all of them. We should be seeing another one soon, right?
One of the books was turned into the movie “Burglar”, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Don’t blame Block for the movie, though. He didn’t like it, either.
The Scudder books are a complete 180 degree turn from the Burglar books. The Burglar books are quite funny, whereas the Scudder books are devoid of humor.
Matthew Scudder is a former cop who now works as an unlicensed private investigator. He is also a sober alcoholic, so he generally finds the time to attend a couple of AA meetings during the course of a book.
The Scudder books have a tendency to be violent, especially when he is hanging out with his friend Mick Ballou, a bar owner/criminal (probably not the best situation for a guy fighting alcoholism, but Mick is an old friend). Scudder’s moral compass tends to point fairly close to north, though. He does some bad things, but he does them for the right reasons.
Scudder’s significant other is Elaine. Elaine and Scudder have a long history. They met when Elaine was a high priced hooker and Scudder was a young cop. Midway through the series, we are introduced to TJ, a kid with street smarts who proves very valuable to Scudder.
There are sixteen books in the Scudder series, published between 1976 and 2005. I have read all sixteen.
Tanner served in the Korean war and suffered a serious injury. The result was that the “sleep center” in his brain was damaged. This means that Tanner never sleeps – literally.
Tanner ends up as a spy, where his ability to be awake all the time is very useful. Tanner’s job take him all around the world.
I’ve read a couple of the Tanner novels, but they didn’t grab me. They weren’t bad, they simply didn’t have that ge na sais quoi of the Burglar and Scudder novels (those guys set the bar pretty high). I actively read a billion authors (well, maybe twelve) and Tanner’s books just miss the cut, unfortunately.
There are eight novels in the Tanner series. Seven were written between 1966 and 1970, and the last was written in 1998. That book – Tanner on Ice – features Tanner being awaken from a cryogenic state.
I have not read all of Block’s book. Here are some of his other characters:
Keller – A professional hit man. I have read one of the Keller books. They just aren’t my type of book. There are four Keller novels, published between 1998 and 2008.
Chip Harrison – There are four books in the Chip Harrison series, all published between 1970 and 1975.
Paul Kavanaugh – There are three books in the Paul Kavanaugh series, published between 1969 and 1974.
Other novels – Block has also written a variety of novels (and novellas) that are not a part of a particular series. Some of these have been published in collections. This is a great way to acquire multiple books for a good price.
Books for writers – Block has written four books for writers – Writing the Novel from Plot to Print (1979), Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (1981), Write for Your life (1986), and Spider, Spin Me a Web (1987). I have read Telling Lies and Spider, and they are great books for the aspiring writer.
Enough Rope is a collection of short stories. It is a massive book, nearly 900 pages in hardcover. I originally received a paperback version of this book as a gift. I quickly realized that this book would be a companion for life, and purchased the hardcover copy (lending the paperback copy to the communal library at my office). You will see many of the characters from Block’s novels also appear in the short stories, as well as several stories about lawyer Martin Ehrengraf. If you’re not sure which of the Block characters you will like, this book would be a good place to start.
There are also a lot of free-standing stories in the collection. All of the stories can be read in one sitting. Two of my favorites are Cleveland in My Dreams and Funny You Should Ask.
If you only purchase one Lawrence Block book, buy Enough Rope (I would recommend buying several books, of course).
Lawrence Block is now 70 years old. In addition to writing, he competes in distance walking (24 hour races, marathons, ultramarathons). You can buy signed copies of his books – and keep up with his exploits – at LawrenceBlock.com