I listened to the audiobook versions of The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown and The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder back to back, and it was a rewarding way to take in these capstone projects by an author whose work never fails to delight me. Lawrence Block has found unexpected and exceptional ways to close the books—as it were—on two of his most famous and beloved characters.
Disclaimer: When I presented Mr. Block as part of the Out Loud! Author Series way back in 2009, he was talking about giving up the writing game. Since then, he has been quite prolific—and his output has included new adventures for characters he had previously said were unlikely to reappear. Given those facts, I use “capstone projects” and “ways to close the books” advisedly, never wanting to underestimate what the 85-year-old author might find rattling around in his terrifically creative mind and put down on paper.
The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown finds gentleman bookseller and retired burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and his best friend Carolyn Kaiser whisked to an alternate universe—one with decidedly less bookselling competition and decidedly fewer security cameras—ostensibly due to Bernie’s reading of Fredric Brown’s 1949 novel What Mad Universe, itself a tale of an alternate universe. The conceit lets Bernie get back in the burglarizing game, and it also lets Bernie and Carolyn consider what constitutes the “best of all possible worlds.”
Longtime fans of the Burglar series might approach this new entry with some trepidation, worried that the alternate universe plot might undermine everything they love about the books. I can assure fans that this novel is every bit as enjoyable as the dozen books that have preceded it over the years. I could imagine some readers quibbling over an adjustment—albeit temporary—to Bernie and Carolyn’s relationship, but Block handles it deftly, avoiding what might have been a bothersome aspect of the wish fulfillment angle.
Richard Ferrone, the longtime voice of the Rhodenbarr audio books, does a wonderful job, as always, with the droll dialogue and comedic (though sometimes deadly) action of the adventure. The book was published and recorded in 2022, and Ferrone passed away later that same year, adding a bittersweet note to the experience of listening to the novel.
The Autobiography of Matthew Scudder, published in 2023, gives Block’s world-weary but largely content cop-turned-private-eye an opportunity to reflect on his life—particularly the years prior to those recounted in the novels, short stories, and novella about him. The conceit here is that Block was asked to write a biography of Scudder, but thought it would be better handled by the man himself. Scudder is a reluctant autobiographer, but he finds himself typing away anyway, exploring issues of destiny and the degrees to which everyone just might be doing the best they can.
The book is cleverly constructed in that Scudder, despite his ongoing reluctance to write any of his remembrances down, finds ways to keep his story engaging even as he occasionally “corrects” something from previous descriptions of his life and work. At one point, he tells the reader that he has written and deleted a series of anecdotes from his early time as a New York City detective, and I found myself genuinely disappointed that the material was left out—a credit to how engaging Scudder’s reflections are.
The book is read by Peter Berkrot—with an assist from Block himself as well as from Romy Nordlinger (in the portion of the audiobook that deviates to a certain degree from its primary structure)—who has read several of Block’s books in the past, though never a story featuring Scudder. In the early going, I wasn’t sure Berkrot sounded hard boiled enough for the character, but by book’s end it was easy to accept that I’d been listening to Scudder tell his own tale.
Both novels have a meta-relationship with the book series of which they are a part. Bernie and Carolyn reflect that he might have had enough adventures in his past to make up a series of, say, a dozen books. Scudder tells us at one point that he is an avid reader of Block’s accounts of his travails, and wonders how his memory of “actual” events has blended together with the “fictionalizations” of those events. These tips of the hat to his own work are satisfying—especially as they come in new work that expands, deepens, and alters our understanding of the books that preceded them.
Neither book serves as a good jumping in point for its respective series. Indeed, these are novels written with longtime readers firmly in mind. But if you are inclined to get to know Bernie (start at the beginning with 1977’s Burglars Can’t Be Choosers) or Scudder (start at the beginning with 1976’s The Sins of the Fathers), you can read your way to these excellent additions to each series with anticipation.