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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.
Donald Mitchell
Co-author of The 2,000 Percent Solution, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage
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on November 18, 1998
Antiquarian book dealer Berni Rhodenbarr feels pretty good about his current job, appraising New York millionaire Gordon Onderdon's personal collection. While checking the library, Bernie, being a thief, cannot help casing the rest of the house in case he decides to abscond with something.
Bernie's close friend Carolyn Kaiser informs Bernie that someone has abducted her cat. For ransom, they want the Piet Mondrian painting hanging in a museum where it is virtually impossible to steal anything. Bernie, knowing that Gordon has a fake on his wall, returns to the wealthy man's home to steal the painting. Instead, he finds a corpse and no painting. Of course, the police turn to Bernie as the prime suspect. Now he has to rescue the feline and prove his own innocence.
This is a reprint of a classy Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, which may be the best of this highly regarded series. Bernie and friends remain interesting and fun, while New York City comes to life in a way rarely seen in a novel. The crisp story line keeps reader attention throughout the book. Bottom line is the entire eight-novel collection is worth reading because no one does Manhattan any better than Lawrence Block does with these incredible tales.
Harriet Klausner
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on July 14, 2003
Don't get me wrong. I love the burglar series. But this one was a bit too complicated to enjoy. When I read a Rhodenbarr book, I don't want to have to think too hard, but this one has too many twists and too many paintings to keep track of. The story starts out nice enough, with a kidnapped cat and a ransom call (in a Nazi voice) requesting a Mondrian painting. Unfortunately, the catnapping story loses steam and after awhile, I think Lawrence Block almost forgot it, then suddenly tried to wrap a bow around it. Bernie reveals the twisted details in the end, but he doesn't sufficiently explain how he solves the mystery. He rounds up the suspects into one room for the showdown, and the suspect list includes characters heretofore unseen. I wish all the suspects could have been introduced to the reader before hand, so we had a fighting chance to figure out the mystery ourselves.
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on January 15, 1999
My first Burglar book. Our hero is a burglar and a second hand Greenwich Village bookseller, already shreds of originality begin to appear in what is essentially a book that can appeal to people who don't normally read who-did-its. The plot can be predictable, it follows the rules of shlocky pulp fiction. For one, our burglar cum detective, is a younger version Chandler's Marlowe - cynical and a smart-arse. Yet, he is different, he's actually a cesspool of esoteric and eclectic knowledge, and his facetious banter is terribly endearing, plus his lesbian friend and her cats are fun too. I had a smile from one side of my face to other when I finished the novel which is last thing I shall about the novel - it's really very funny, but in a clever way.
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on August 3, 2000
Review by Nina Coombs Pykare, author of DEATH COMES FOR DESDEMONA. As always Bernie Rohdenbarr gets himself mixed up in a murder. And as always Larry Block gives us a fascinating world where the burglar is 'the good guy' and an 'honest cop' limits his take. This time it's a kidnapped cat and a painting by Mondrian that push the plot. I love the way Block drops little allusions to literature. He makes me laugh. A great read.
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on January 11, 2000
You know? I really do not care about the last 50 pages of a Bernie Rhodenbarr book. It does not matter to me who did it, since we all know that it could never be "Mrs Rhodenbarr's boy, Bernie". What is important is to read the wonderful characters and how they interact. When I finish each Burglar book, I want to get the next one and spend more time with these unique characters.
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on January 18, 1999
My first Lawrence Block book and I'm sold. Bernie Rhodenbarr is the kind of person we like to befriend in the real world.
Unique. Risk taking. Confident. Colorful. Funny.
So because I liked him, I wanted to go along on his adventures. And for my efforts, I was rewarded with an exciting read. Now, I'm off to find my next Block book. And no, I'm not a relative.
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on September 20, 1999
There's a song that goes: "Born to bad/That's the history of my life/Doin' things wrong is my way of doing things right". That's Bernie Rothembar, for sure. In "Mondriani", mr. Block surrounds our adorable burglar with great characters. The end of the book made me laugh out from joy.
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on October 24, 2001
While Bernie seems to be in a similar predicament time after time, it never gets dull. And while all of the books I've read so far in the Bernie series are funny, this one seemed to be exceptionally so.
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