The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Lawrence Block’s novels have gotten progressively better—and progressively darker—over the years. From his 1960’s James Bond spoofs starring secret agent Evan Tanner through his gritty 1980’s detective novels featuring alcoholic private eye Matt Scudder, Block has produced an impressively varied and consistently improving body of work, but the mood has grown ever more somber (at times, the acclaimed Scudder novels have seemed positively grim). It is therefore with something of a sense of relief that longtime fans will likely turn to THE BURGLAR WHO TRADED TED WILLIAMS, in which Block revisits his lighthearted 1970’s protagonist, master thief Bernie Rhodenbarr.

In the years since Bernie’s last appearance, he’s gone straight, turning away from second-story work to focus on running his Manhattan bookstore. Block seems to have a little trouble recalling the series’ customary light tone in the early chapters, as Bernie undergoes a one-day-at-a-time struggle that echoes Scudder’s prolonged battle with the bottle; in Bernie’s case, he must resist the temptation to save his store from bankruptcy with a timely B&E. By the middle of the book, though, Block manages to recapture Bernie’s familiar first-person comic narration, and the story proceeds smoothly.

Bernie, of course, gives in to his urges. When he raids a posh apartment, however, he finds a dead body. Block has used this premise before—but this time, at least, his hero does not get charged with murder. Instead, Bernie is drawn into a complicated scheme revolving around the theft of a valuable collection of baseball cards. The tightly wound but lightweight plot breezes by; Block, a longtime columnist for WRITER’S DIGEST, is absolutely as good as it gets at the technical side of his craft. A quick, pleasant read, THE BURGLAR WHO TRADED TED WILLIAMS is a welcome change of pace from one of America’s best mystery writers.