The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown by Lawrence Block
By Daniel Dern: As a fan of both Lawrence Block and Fredric Brown (their stories and books, that is), I was intrigued and ready-to-be-excited by an announcement back in August 2022, which I saw I-don’t-remember-where and then here in File770, in Item #2, about Block’s then-upcoming novel, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown (which I’ll now refer to as TBWMFB), Block’s thirteenth book about bookseller/burglar (or vice versa) Bernie Rhodenbarr.
(Cavil/Quibble/Note: Thirteenth book but twelfth novel, because Block’s previous Rhodenbarr, The Burglar In Short Order, is a (highly enjoyable) collection of short stories about Bernie.)
This is intended to be a spoilers-free write-up. (If you’ve read or otherwise know the underlying gimmick — I’m not sure it qualifies as a MacGuffin — in Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, then you already have a non-unreasonable expectation of what happens early on, but Block takes it in a different tone and direction from Brown, and since it’s the premise, not a spoiler anyway IMHO.)
I’ll start with my opinions/recommendations, rather than leave them to the end. Arguably much of what’s after this list is snakes-hands; it’s definitely more about Lawrence Block (and why and what I recommend reading his stuff) than TBWMFB.
(1) I enjoyed The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown. I’ve read all the previous Bernie The Burglar books, although, other than …In Short Order, probably none more recently than a decade or more ago. I’ve read lots of Lawrence Block; over half a dozen re-re-read. I’ve read a fair amount of Fredric Brown — lots of the sf stories, in the sf magazines and anthologies and collections as I grew up, some recently.
(2) If you’ve read at least a few of Block’s previous Bernie books, odds are pretty good you’ll like The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown. This Bernie book is different from previous ones, so if it turns out to not be your cup of tea (or klava, for Steven Brust Vlad Taltos-verse fans), click here for 50% of your time back. (Not responsible for ripple-effect changes.)
(3) If you’ve read other Block but not his Burglar books (though this seems unlikely), ditto — but I suggest you read one or two of those first, to meet the characters first. The Burglar In Short Order should suffice; more won’t hurt.
(4) If you haven’t read any Block, (a) see (3) above and, (b) good news, Block’s got LOTS of great reads. My favorites include the John Keller Hit Man series (five books – note, many parts show up, particularly in e-form, as individual stories. Best read in order. Note to author: More Keller, please!); the Evan Tanner books (in particular, I commend the first, and also the currently-last Tanner On Ice, which has an sf-adjacent not-quite-a-MacGuffin a la Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer (but no cat), in particular); the Ehrengraf for the Defense collection(s?); his other story collections; and his non-fiction collections (his stamp collector columns, and The Crime of Our Lives (essays and anecdotes). (I’m also fond of A Random Walk, which is perhaps arguably sf or adjacentish.)
There are many reasons to enjoy and savor reading Block. The characters, perfect-timing zinger endings, the New York City bits, and the prose itself, including, like Donald Westlake, drop-in bits that may or may not serve the movement or character, but are simply delightful. (The Westlake one that comes to mind is from one of his Dortmunder stories, inventorying the passengers in a goonmobile, including “stately, plump Buck Mulligan.” (Also used, with more context, in Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely’s superb All-Star Superman run.)
Ed Gorman nailed it, in his introduction to the Hard Case edition of Block’s Borderline (although it feels like I read it in some other essay/intro collection: “A long time ago I said that Lawrence Block writes the best sentences in the business. I don’t see any reason to change my mind.” (Possibly I’d read Gorman’s original remark. I’d thought it was said by Stephen King, but the web says it was Ed Gorman; who am I to disagree?) Some of my favorite places are from Block’s John Keller stories; somehow, for example, the beginning of Keller’s Designated Hitter. I can’t explain it, but I know when I’m enjoying prose as it goes.
(4) If you haven’t (yet) read any Fredric Brown, tsk! but that’s not an impediment to reading The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown. (I subsequently reread Brown’s What Mad Universe, and stand by my opinion.)
Where to get TBWMFG:
I read the paperback, courtesy of my library (also available as an e-book), a belated several months ago. (My fault, I’d gronked my initial library reservation.) So I’m very belatedly getting back to this write-up.)
For serious fans/collectors; Subterranean Press is doing a deluxe signed-and-limited hardcover, scheduled for release October 1, 2023. I can’t see (from listings) whether there are any “extras.” (Note, many of Block’s e-book versions include essays, bio info, photos, etc. — worth checking out via HooplaDigital or Libby library borrows!)
And there’s an audiobook, available through various sources.
This is probably as good a place as any to mention some places to get your Fredric Brown. NESFA Press has two Brown collections (in paper and/or e-book): From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, and Martians and Madness: The Complete SF Novels of Fredric Brown. E-library-wise, Hoopla, Libby, and OverDrive (which has been replaced by Libby, but this search may burp up different results than Libby’s).
Plus there are numerous non-SF reprints/collections, from various publishers, many in your library’s physical stacks, bookstores, and your friends’ shelves.
CLEARING THROAT AGAIN. Before I launch into talking about The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown one more note (for now), and one disclaimer:
- Bernie Rhodenbarr doesn’t actually meet Fredric Brown in TBWMFB. (To be fair, while none of the previous titles make similar “met” claims, Bernie doesn’t meet any of the other title-name-dropped people.)
- This write-up isn’t really a review, by my definition. (In case you haven’t yet figured that out from the title or the text so far.)
BLOCK AND/OR SF: Unlike Fredric Brown, who wrote a fair amount of SF alongside a lot of crime/mystery/detective stuff, Lawrence Block, like Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, and others, has only a few excursions into or dalliances with sf.
(I don’t consider Tanner On Ice to be sf in any way, and I’m not sure how to categorize A Random Walk, but IMHO it’s not genre sf. That doesn’t stop me from periodically re-reading either of these books, but it makes me mildly curious where my town’s library — which has separate-from-general-fiction zones for mystery/crime, sf/fantasy, and romance — would file it.)
Conveniently, Janet Rudolph got deets straight from the author’s mouth (or email, in her interview cited in Item #2 of File770’s August 23, 2023 scroll, her “An ‘Impertinent’ Interview with Lawrence Block” at Mystery Fanfare. Talking with Block about TBWMFB:
You ever write any SF?
I had a story in a magazine, Science Fiction Stories, in 1959, and it was chosen for Judith Merril’s best-of-the-year collection. And in 1984 Fantasy & Science Fiction ran “The Boy Who Disappeared Clouds.”
But there’s no doubting that (like Stephen King), Block knows and enjoys sf. Here’s Block’s post about Fredric Brown.
And here’s Block’s comments-and-preview excerpt blog post The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown—a preview! — enough to help you decide whether to read the book.
Where Brown’s What Mad Universe is a mix of grim plot and cultural satire, TBWMFB is (give or take Bernie The Burglar’s inevitable caper-turning-into-having-to-solve-a-murder-he’s-blamed-for) a romp, where characters and author are clearly having fun. And, hopefully, so will you.
IN SCROLLS TO COME: Block, and Westlake, both have non-fiction collections of various articles, essays, book introductions, correspondence, etc. (including some about each other, they worked in the Scott Meredith Agency contemporaneously or near, and were good friends. I’m brooding about a post on these books; they’re informative, engaging, and entertaining — and it’s interesting to hear them speaking directly, as themselves, rather than through a narrator or character.