Top critical review
Bernie Straightens Out the Curves and the Frames
on May 10, 2003
Lawrence Block is one of our most talented mystery authors. In the Bernie Rhodenbarr series he explores how an ordinary, but intelligent, "honest" person might go about pursuing a life of crime as a fastidious and talented burglar who isn't proud of what he does, doesn't like to hang out with criminals, and really gets a big thrill out of breaking and entering . . . and removing valuables. As you can see, there's a sitcom set-up to provide lots of humor. But the humor works well in part because Mr. Block is able to put the reader in the Bernie's shoes while he breaks, enters and steals . . . and evades the long arm of the law. To balance the "honest" burglar is an array of "dishonest" and equally easy-money loving cops. As a result, you're in a funny moral never-never land while your stomach tightens and your arm muscles twitch as tension builds. To make matters even more topsy-turvy, Bernie at some point in every story turns into an investigator who must figure out "who-dun-it" for some crime that he personally didn't do. It's almost like one of those "mystery at home" games where the victim comes back as the police investigator, playing two roles. Very nice!
So much for explaining the concept of the series. The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian is the fifth book in the series. I strongly suggest that you begin the series by reading Burglars Can't Be Choosers and follow it up with The Burglar in the Closet, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza and The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. Each story in the series adds information and characters in a way that will reduce your pleasure of the others if read out of order. Although, I originally read them out of order and liked them well enough. I'm rereading them now in order, and like it much better this way. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams comes next in the series.
Book dealer Bernie has been hired by a wealthy collector to come to his apartment to value his book collection. Bernie is happy to do this for two reasons. He gets paid more for his time than he does by selling books in his store, and, more importantly, because it gets him into one of the highest security apartment buildings in New York City at a time when a wealthy stamp collector is away in West Virginia. After the appraisal is completed, Bernie sneaks up the fire exit to burgle another apartment and comes away with some choice and salable items. Just when everything seems perfect, Bernie finds himself inexplicably wanted for murder. Soon every cop in New York is looking for him. Even Ray Kirschmann's paid-for help may not save him this time!
This story has some of the most offbeat and unexpected situations in it of any that I remember in detective fiction. Each element seems to be so outlandish that you cannot help but smile. In essence, the book is a spoof of the whole detective fiction genre, and it works as humor very well. For example, a cat is kidnapped by someone demanding a quarter-million dollar ransom and cat whiskers are delivered to prove that the cat is being held. Bernie meets someone unexpectedly in one of his burglaries and you will be totally amazed by what comes next. Bernie is confronted with three seemingly impossible thefts and his ultimate methods to secure the goods will keep you chuckling for hours. Bernie conferences with his attorney while running up and down hills after his old attorney succumbs in an unusual manner to the Grim Reaper. The complications among lovers, ex-lovers and potential lovers remind me of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Here's the fly in the pigment in this hilarious tale. If you know nothing about art, the story works perfectly and you will remember it for years as one of the best detective books you have read. If you totally suspend your disbelief about art, it also works well. If you know about art and insist on accuracy in details, you will know that the story's resolution does not work. It is full of more holes than most Swiss cheese. If you find yourself in one of the first two categories, you will think of this as a five-star book. If you think of it in the last category, you will think it is hopelessly flawed. My grading reflects a balance between those views. Decide in advance how you want to read the book.
The theme of this book focuses on the seemingly insignificant differences between what is genuine and what is not. Mostly, the differences lie in the mind, rather than in reality. A good question to ask yourself after reading this book is where nongenuine, but well-done, substitutes should be used in preference to what is scarce, expensive and genuine.
Co-author of The 2,000 Percent Solution, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage