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Bookseller and New-Yorker-to-the-bone, Bernie Rhodenbarr rarely ventures out of Manhattan, but he's excited about the romantic getaway he has planned for himself and current lady love Lettice at the Cuttleford House, a remote upstate b&b. Unfortunately, Lettice has a prior engagement—she's getting married . . . and not to Bernie—so he decides to take best buddy Carolyn instead. A restful respite from the big city's bustle would be too good to waste. Besides, there's a very valuable first edition shelved in ...
Bookseller and New-Yorker-to-the-bone, Bernie Rhodenbarr rarely ventures out of Manhattan, but he's excited about the romantic getaway he has planned for himself and current lady love Lettice at the Cuttleford House, a remote upstate b&b. Unfortunately, Lettice has a prior engagement—she's getting married . . . and not to Bernie—so he decides to take best buddy Carolyn instead. A restful respite from the big city's bustle would be too good to waste. Besides, there's a very valuable first edition shelved in the Cuttleford's library that Bernie's just itching to get his hands on. Did we neglect to mention that Bernie's a burglar?
But first he's got to get around a very dead body on the library floor. The plot's thickened by an isolating snowstorm, downed phone lines, the surprise arrival of Lettice and her reprehensible new hubby, and a steadily increasing corpse count. And it's Bernie who'll have to figure out whodunit . . . or die.
Bernie, evidently recovered from his most recent folly (The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, 1995), has a fine time mocking the conventions of Christie's bygone age. Fans who don't insist on plotting as tight as Christie's will enjoy themselves just as much as if it were her.
At three in the afternoon on the first Thursday in March, I got Barnegat Books settled in for the weekend. I dragged my table of bargain books inside, closed the door, and turned the cardboard sign in the window from Open to Closed. I ran the cash-register tape—the work of a moment, alas—and took the checks to my desk in the back room, where I filled out a deposit slip and prepared a mail deposit. I returned with a box a little over a foot in length. It was shaped like a little house in a child's drawing, peaked roof and all, with a handle where the chimney ought to be. I opened the hinged top, set it on the floor, and looked around for Raffles.
He was in the window, treating himself to a few rays. I called his name, which might have worked if he'd been a dog, but he's not and it didn't. Raffles is a cat, a declawed unmanned tailless gray tabby, and if he even knows his name he's not letting on. True to form, he didn't stir at the sound of my voice, but lay motionless in what little sunlight there was.
So I crumpled a sheet of paper, and that worked. We have a training ritual that involves my hurling paper balls for him to run down and kill. It probably looks like a game to the casual observer, but it's serious business, designed to sharpen his mousing skills. I guess it's working; I stopped finding gnawed book spines and suspicious organic matter on my shelves the day he moved in.
I threw the ball of paper and he was off and running. He had it before it stopped rolling, sank the memory of his claws deep into it, took it in his mouth, shook it fiercely to and fro, and left itfor dead.
A dog would have brought it back so I could throw it again. A cat wouldn't dream of it. "Good job," I said, and crumpled a fresh sheet, and he made another clean kill. I congratulated him again, prepared a third paper ball, and tossed it gently into the open cat carrier.
He looked at it. Then he looked at me, and then he looked at the floor.
A few minutes later there was a knock on my door. "We're closed," I called out without looking. My eyes were on Raffles, who had removed himself to an open spot in the Philosophy & Religion section, on the same high shelf with the bust of Immanuel Kant.
The knock was repeated, and so was my response. "Closed for the weekend!" I sang out. "Sorry!"
"Bernie, open the door."
So I looked, and of course it was Carolyn, looking larger than life in a down-filled parka. There was a suitcase at her feet and a frown on her brow. I let her in and she blew on her hands and rubbed them together. "I thought you'd be ready by now," she said. "We've got a train to catch, remember?"
"It's Raffles," I said.
"What about him?"
"He won't get in the cat carrier."
She looked at me, then at the cat carrier, then bent over to retrieve two paper balls from it.
"I thought maybe I could get him to jump in after them," I said.
"You thought that, huh?"
"Well, it was just an idea," I said.
"You've had better ones, Bern. Where'd he go?"
"He's sitting up there with the father of the categorical imperative," I said. "Which figures, because it's imperative that he get in the cat carrier, and he's categorically opposed to it. I don't know, Carolyn, maybe it's a mistake to take him. We're only going to be gone three nights. If I put out plenty of food and water for him, and leave the radio on to keep him company . . ."
She gave me a look, shook her head, sighed, and clapped her hands fiercely together, calling the cat's name in a loud voice. Raffles sprang down from his perch and flattened himself against the floor. If he'd lowered his center of gravity one more inch he'd have been in the basement.
She bent over, picked him up, and put him in the carrier. "Now you stay there," she told him, in a tone that brooked no argument, and snapped the lid shut to give him no choice in the matter. "You can't con them into it," she explained. "You have to get physical. Ready, Bern?"
"I guess so."
"I hope that coat's warm enough. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees since lunch. And the forecast's calling for snow north of the city."
"It'll warm up," I said.
"You think so?"
"It's March already. I know the groundhog saw his shadow, but the extra six weeks of winter are almost up. Even if we do get a little snow, it won't stick around long." I took my suitcase in one hand and Raffles's carrier in the other and let Carolyn hold the door for me. Outside, I went through what you have to go through to close up a store in New York, hauling the steel gate across, fastening innumerable padlocks. These chores are best performed barehanded, and by the time I was done my fingers were numb.
"It's cold, all right," I admitted. "But we'll be cozy at Cuttleford House. Snow on the roof, a fire on the hearth—"
"Kippers for breakfast. Afternoon tea with cream and clotted scones." She frowned. "Is that right, Bern? Or should it be the other way around?"
"No, it's right. Kippers for breakfast, scones for tea."
"I know that part's right," she said. "It's just a question of which is supposed to be clotted, the cream or the scones, and I'm pretty sure it's the cream. 'Scones and clotted cream.' Yeah, that sounds better."
"Either one sounds good about now."
"And all those other great English dishes. Bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, toad-in-the-hole. What exactly is toad-in-the-hole, Bern, do you happen to know?"The Burglar in the Library. Copyright © by Lawrence Block. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Lawrence Block: My idea. The first book under that pen name, SUCH MEN ARE DANGEROUS, had Kavanagh as the narrator, and I used it as a pen name as well. There are some ex-spooks around who insist the book was by Paul Kavanagh, who was an ex-CIA guy. It's evidently become legend in certain quarters.
Lawrence Block: I wouldn't do that.
Lawrence Block: Not at the moment. A couple of tentative options are possible, but I'm not holding my breath.
Lawrence Block: Oh, a fair amount. We have the same level of honesty.
Lawrence Block: Yes, a book called HIT MAN, coming in February from Morrow. About a hit man, predictably enough.
Lawrence Block: I wouldn't say short stories are easier. They are shorter, obviously, and I find them a great change of pace from the trench warfare of novel writing. I spent about eight months last year writing short stuff, so it probably won't be too long before I have another collection ready.
Lawrence Block: Used to. Not any more, although I sometimes speak at writers' conferences, and will be at the Harriette Austin conference in Athens, GA, this weekend.
Lawrence Block: Not really. A lot of people like WHEN THE SACRED GINMILL CLOSES, which (finally!) is back in paperback this month from Avon. But I don't think much in terms of favorites, and tend to like the most recent books the best, perhaps because I'm closer to them in time.
Lawrence Block: It varies. When I work, it's pretty much all I do. But I take a lot of time off between books.
Lawrence Block: You never know.
Lawrence Block: I'll be touring July 17 to 27, going to Georgia and California. My schedule's posted on various boards, like incl.rec.arts.mystery.
Lawrence Block: Just go ahead and do it.
Lawrence Block: Oh, sure. I have a low boredom threshold, which may explain why I write so many different kinds of books.
Lawrence Block: There's a new Evan Tanner novel just written. The probable title is SOMEWHERE EAST OF SUEZ. The probable pub date is September '98.
Lawrence Block: They're fine, Lisa. How are you?
Lawrence Block: It's an early book, and was reissued recently in paperback by Carroll & Graf. The title now is COWARD'S KISS, which was the original title before some genius picked DEATH PULLS A DOUBLE CROSS.
Lawrence Block: Beats me.
Lawrence Block: Well, on the abridged editions of the Burglar books, I do the narration myself. But other than that, no, I don't.
Lawrence Block: Schizophrenic.
Lawrence Block: It's like my life. I make it up as I go along, and keep surprising myself.
Lawrence Block: I thought Bridges and Garcia gave fine performances, but I didn't think much of the film.
Lawrence Block: I like to hear it, but I don't want intrusions on my private life. So I try to make myself available via signings and appearances, at which time I welcome interaction with readers.
Lawrence Block: I don't think that much in categorical terms. I know a lot of my work turns up in horror anthologies, and that's fine with me, but I don't know how any of it should be categorized.
Lawrence Block: Well, I don't like to comment on other writers, but I will say that Donald E. Westlake's new novel, THE AX, is terrific.
Lawrence Block: I don't usually enjoy them, but this is sort of fun.
Lawrence Block: Well, it was my choice, so I feel fine about it.
Lawrence Block: Thanks. It takes a fair amount of time -- and money! -- but I enjoy doing it. It comes out once or twice a year, and anybody who wants to get on the list for it can email me at LawBloc@aol.com with your name and snail-mail address. It's free, you know, and worth every penny.
Lawrence Block: Nope. One of my daughters seemed like a possible, but she decided she'd rather be a lawyer. Go figure....
Lawrence Block: I think it's gotten worse. On the other hand, I'm doing better than I was 40 years ago, so I'm not going to complain about it.
Lawrence Block: No, this is home. I love Ireland and hope to spend substantial periods of time there, but I'm too deeply attached to NYC to flourish anywhere else. And I don't get tired of it because we travel so much.
Lawrence Block: I doubt it. He gets to Ohio in EVEN THE WICKED, but only briefly. But in THE BURGLAR IN THE LIBRARY, Bernie Rhodenbarr leaves the city for a whole book. It worked out fine.
Lawrence Block: I wrote several short stories about a sort of Urban Lonely Guy of assassins, his name being Keller. Most of them appeared in Playboy. And it became clear to me that what I was doing was writing a novel on the installment plan. I finished it, and it's HIT MAN.
Lawrence Block: Well, it's easier to tell us apart these days, because Bob Bloch died a couple of years ago. He was a sweet man and a fine writer. And yes, every once in a while someone would come up to me and say he liked my work, but I'd really hit my peak with PSYCHO.
Lawrence Block: I have a feeling TJ's going to monopolize the computer. I can't see Matt surfing, somehow.
Lawrence Block: It's possible, but no plans at present.
Lawrence Block: Not terribly. I have an email account but don't do much more with the Internet than that. Tangled Web runs my newsletter and other stuff, but I'm not really involved in it.
Lawrence Block: I probably do a little less than meets the eye.
Lawrence Block: Funny? You think those books are funny?
Lawrence Block: Yes, quite a few. In November and February issues of Playboy and various future issues of Ellery Queen and Mary Higgins Clark magazines, and several new anthologies -- NAL's THE BEST OF THE BEST, THE PLOT THICKENS, TILL DEATH DO US PART, and HOT BLOOD 10. And others I'm not remembering just now.
Lawrence Block: They're essentially fictional syntheses. Some are drawn from life to a degree. TJ came out of a chance meeting with a kid in Times Square, and the lawyer Ray Gruliow is clearly patterned after the late William Kunstler.
Lawrence Block: If I ever find time to do it, I'm going to redo a book called WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE and get it back in print.
Lawrence Block: I'm not sure what you mean here.
Lawrence Block: I admire them all.
Lawrence Block: There's never a meaning to anything I do. Glad you like the photo.
Lawrence Block: He and Elaine got married at the end of A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN.
Lawrence Block: Well, they've been married since the end of A LONG LINE OF DEAD MEN, and they seem very happy. But you never know what'll happen next.
Lawrence Block: This was more fun that I thought it would be, I'll tell you that. Thanks for having me, and thanks to everybody out there for the provocative questions. And for those of you in the New York area, please come to Bryant Park (Sixth Ave between 40th and 42nd Streets) on Wednesday, July 30, at 6pm. We're dedicating a bench for Bernie Rhodenbarr, and it's party time!
Posted October 2, 2000
If you love books...and would go to zany, crazy and hilarious means to obtain them -- this book is for you. Block's love of books and great sense of humor come through brilliantly in this mystery.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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