The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, Lawrence Block

Dutton, 1994, 293 pages, C$31.95 tpb, ISBN 1-874-06147-5

(Read in French as Le Blues du Libraire, translated by Robert Pépin)

Writing a novel about the virtues of books is clearly an exercise in preaching to the converted, but then again, so is going to the church to hear a sermon, and I haven’t heard anyone complaining about that lately. Some of the best crime mysteries I’ve read over the past year have been John Dunning’s “Cliff Janeway” mysteries (Booked to Die and The Bookman’s Wake) if only for the sheer love of books exhibited in those novels. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams is another title in the same vein, about a protagonist who loves books.

Now, I’m probably showing my ignorance of Lawrence Block’s entire oeuvre by comparing The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams to Dunning’s diptych. A cursory glance at his entire output so far, courtesy of Amazon.com, shows a number of other novels starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, the protagonist of the novel discussed here. For all I know, those are all better books.

But if they are, I’m impressed. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams is the perfect example of the evening time-waster, the kind of novel fit to be read in a single sitting. It features, conveniently enough, a ex-con bookseller who’s trying to stay straight even ten years after his last conviction. But like an addiction to liquor, thievery is hard to resist, especially when events are driving him to desperation: It’s not easy being a used book seller in New York. When his landlord drops in to confirm a vertiginous hike in building fees, Bernie is at a loss. But when an alluring hint is dropped about a rich couple being away from their apartment for months, well…

That’s barely the setup of the novel, mind you. Once Bernie dons his cat-suit for the first time in a decade, trouble just keeps on piling over him. He’ll discover a body hidden in the empty apartment, puzzle over a locked-room mystery, realize he’s been set-up, answer to the police, perform a few “exceptional” services and discover unsettling links between his predicaments and his landlord. Plus, yes, he will trade Ted Williams as he’ll piece together the mystery.

Some crime novels are written to heavy metal, some to Latin salsa and some to classical opera. This one is closer to cool refreshing jazz, seeing how comfortable it all feels. Bernie may often omit crucial details in his narration, but what would be unforgivable in another context seems almost inconsequential here as we’re swept away in Bernie’s tale. It’s useless to be picky about the way the narrator lies to us: The details don’t matter very much (in fact, I can’t even remember whole chunks of the plot even days after reading the book), but the atmosphere definitely persists. The matter-of-fact way Bernie describes his illicit escapades hides a variety of procedural details in plain sight, allowing us inside Bernie’s head as he goes through other people’s houses.

A subtle humor permeates the book, including a discussion about the sexual orientation of famous mystery protagonists. Few will be surprised to see a cat being part of the tale. And all throughout, the carefree, easy-going narration of Block/Rhodenbarr just helps the reader turn the pages away. It ends, classically enough, with Bernie rounding up the usual suspects and giving them the straight story. It’s all very amusing.

One doesn’t have to love books, or cats, or baseball to like The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams. It’s a perfectly respectable mystery novel on its own. Just relax and be swept away.

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