The lovely Ms. Lettice Runcible, although American, seems to be attracted to all things English. She’s also attracted, much to his delight, to bookseller/burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the two have spent a fair amount of time in Bernie’s small New York apartment making love. After one such session, Bernie, assuming she’ll be thrilled at the prospect, tells her he’s made reservations for them to spend an “English country” weekend at Cuttleford House in the Berkshires.
Lettice tells him she’d love to go but can’t. The weekend in question is not good for her. When he suggests changing the reservation to the weekend after, Lettice confesses that that one won’t work either.
Because she’s getting married.
Bernie is disappointed but not shattered by the information, which he recounts to his best friend Carolyn Kaiser, lesbian dog groomer*, over lunch. Carolyn is one of the very few who know that Bernie, besides operating Barnegat Books, occasionally reverts to his old profession, making burglarious forays into select locations for select items. Thus, his desire to go to Cuttleford House isn’t motivated entirely by the desire to charm the…uh…heart of Lettice.
Casual reading of the memoir of a pulp fiction writer, combined with additional research, has told him that there exists a unique first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and that it’s located at Cuttleford House. First editions of the book are rare to begin with, but what makes this one unique is that it’s a copy Chandler inscribed and personally presented to Dashiell Hammett. When Carolyn asks what it would be worth, Bernie admits he doesn’t knowâ€”he’d probably have to auction it at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. The only thing he’s certain of is that it would fetch a pretty healthy sum.
Bernie hasn’t canceled his reservation. He persuades Carolyn to close The Poodle Factory and join him for a weekend in the mountains, soaking up atmosphere worthy of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
The snow starts to fall on their way to the place, and is coming down with growing intensity by the time their taxi drops them off at the bridge that crosses the gulley over Cuttlebone Creek. Leading to the inn, the bridge, supported by ropes at either end, is not the kind that will support vehicular traffic; it’s for pedestrians only.
Cuttleford House is huge, a somewhat confusing maze of rooms upstairs and down, and populated by a colorful crew of guests and staff. The last guests to arrive during the snowstorm that is now raging are newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Dakin Littlefield. Mrs. Littlefield is the far-from-iceberg Lettice.
Many of the various downstairs rooms are loaded with books, but Bernie eventually spots The Big Sleep in the Great Library. He plans to take it late that night, but when he approaches the unlighted library he overhears two people talking in low voices. He can’t discern either who the speakers are or what they’re saying, and decides now is not the time to grab the book.
Early next morning he and the rest of the house are awakened by a scream. One of the maids has discovered the body of a guest, Jonathan Rathburn, in the library. It appears that Rathburn fell from a set of rolling library steps, hit his head, and died either from a concussion or the ensuing blood-loss. Bernie, however, soon realizes he was murdered and explains how to the congregation of guests and staff. The inn’s proprietress thinksâ€”and fervently hopesâ€”that the murderer was a passing tramp, but that notion is soon dispelled and everyone knows one among them is the killer.
To further complicate matters, the phones are out. It’s suspected at first that the storm temporarily disabled them, but the establishment’s owner later discovers that the lines have been cut. There is no way to contact the police. Even if they could be reached, the snow would hamper their arrival.
Then the body of the inn’s handyman is found lying at the bottom of the gulley, the bridge over which has collapsed because its ropes were partly sawn through. It’s a very deep gulley, and the snow makes it impossible for anyone to get down to him. The angle of his neck makes it plain he can’t still be alive.
Then the cook is found dead in the kitchen. Later on still another guest is found strangled. Then The Big Sleep vanishes.
Carolyn says it feels as though they’re all caught up in a cross between And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap.
Bernie realizes he’s going to have to solve the murders to prevent any additional ones and so they can all get out of there. The method he undertakes to do so puts him into the position of prime suspect and makes for very entertaining reading.
Lawrence Block, as anyone who has read his work knows, is a good, versatile writer. He can create comic cozies (some of the Chip Harrison books which pay homage to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, and of course the Bernie Rhodenbarr “Burglar” series) and hardboiled noir (the Matthew Scudder series) with equal skill. His Evan Tanner espionage novels are also fast-paced and humorous. To those who don’t mind slightly erotic non-mysteries, I recommend his very funny epistolary novel Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, which used to be available from Subterranean Press.
The Burglar in the Library is recommended for its homage to and pastiche of the English country house whodunit, motley cast of characters, wonderful dialogue (some of Bernie’s exchanges with Carolyn and with a precocious ten-year-old girl are hilarious), and various references to classic detective stories which should delight Golden Age fans.
*That is, Carolyn’s a dog groomer who happens to be a lesbian. She doesn’t groom lesbian dogs. At least, not that we know of.