The Burglar In The Library by Lawrence Block

I’ve talked about Block here before, in glowing terms. So why do I need to go on about him again, and about a Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, probably his most lightweight series (he has several, in case you aren’t familiar with him)? Because this is a novel with barely disguised ambitions to discuss the two major strands of crime fiction and bring them into collision, while it’s being a fluffy entertainment.

Bernie, bookseller by day and burglar by night, thinks he has a handle on a first edition of The Big Sleep inscribed to Hammett by Chandler. It’s in a country house hotel owned by an Englishman, and populated by old ladies, retired colonels and the like (he can’t resist a hint of Fawlty Towers). Of course, before he can steal the book, people start getting murdered. Bernie, a big reader of crime fiction, goes into Miss Marple mode, politely questioning the guests and staff and trying to work it out; then eventually decides this isn’t the right approach, and starts to think Marlowe and Spade instead.

It’s a brilliant blend and conflict, a bi-subgeneric crime novel as well as an almost PoMo pastiche and (informally) deconstruction of both. The balancing act and analysis is astute and highly entertaining, getting at what made Chandler great beyond just the ‘mean streets’ stuff, and at the appeal of the genteel drawing room mystery too. This is a novel that is immensely clever on levels almost never credited to the crime genre.