Lawrence Block is one of our most talented mystery authors. In the Bernie Rhodenbarr series he explores how an ordinary, but intelligent, "honest" person might go about pursuing a life of crime as a fastidious and talented burglar who isn't proud of what he does, doesn't like to hang out with criminals, and really gets a big thrill out of breaking and entering . . . and removing valuables. As you can see, there's a sitcom set-up to provide lots of humor. But the humor works well in part because Mr. Block is able to put the reader in the Bernie's shoes while he breaks, enters and steals . . . and evades the long arm of the law. To balance the "honest" burglar is an array of "dishonest" and equally easy-money loving cops. As a result, you're in a funny moral never-never land while your stomach tightens and your arm muscles twitch as tension builds. To make matters even more topsy-turvy, Bernie at some point in every story turns into an investigator who must figure out "who-dun-it" for some crime that he personally didn't do. It's almost like one of those "mystery at home" games where the victim comes back as the police investigator, playing two roles. Very nice!
So much for explaining the concept of the series. The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza is the fourth book in the series. I strongly suggest that you begin the series by reading Burglars Can't Be Choosers and follow it up with The Burglar in the Closet and The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. Each story in the series adds information and characters in a way that will reduce your pleasure of the others if read out of order. Although, I originally read them out of order and liked them well enough. I'm rereading them now in order, and like it much better this way. The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian comes next in the series.
Bernie's friend, Carolyn Kaiser, the dog groomer at the Poodle Factory has a hot tip for him. Wealthy dog-owners, Herbert and Wanda Colcannon will be out of town breeding Astrid, their Bouvier des Flandres guard dog, who normally keeps burglars away from their possessions, which includes Herbert's famous coin collection . . . and which Bernie is already impressed by. Carolyn discovered a taste for breaking and entering while "borrowing" a Polaroid camera in The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, and now she's a full-fledged partner who insists on joining Bernie in the burglary.
Quickly inside the Colcannon's West 18th Street brownstone, they find the place a mess. "Burglars," Bernie announces. But the first burglars mainly made a mess . . . and couldn't open the safe. But Bernie does and finds some jewelry, a Piaget watch, and a nickel. The main coin collection must be safe in a bank vault elsewhere. Carolyn's more pleased with the Chagall lithograph that she takes for her apartment. So far, so good.
They retire to visit Bernie's charming fence, Abel Crowe, who had survived being an inmate at Dachau. Bernie knows that Abel is more likely to be generous if he's in a good mood, so Bernie brings Abel a little gift, a 1707 English edition of Spinoza's Ethics, bound in blue calf. Everything goes smoothly until Abel examines the nickel. "Gross Gott!" he exclaims. Bernie has brought him one of five known specimens of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel that the mint denies ever having made. It's worth a fortune. Abel offers a small sum in cash now . . . or to split the proceeds from a more leisurely sale. Bernie and Carolyn agree to wait on their money, and leave happily.
By the next morning, everything has gone bad. Unless Bernie finds out what really happened, he's scheduled to be the fly in the soup.
I didn't enjoy the mystery to be solved nearly as much in this one as in The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. In fact, this is my least favorite of the books that Mr. Block wrote in the series. I was disturbed by who Mr. Block selected to be his victims, and found all of the coin collecting details to be not nearly as interesting as the bibliophile content of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. Although I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that you skip this one, I suspect that you will be disappointed compared to other books in the series even though the humor and dialogue are wonderfully strong and engaging. But stick with it, the books get much better from here in the series.
This book's theme is being careful about whom you trust. Take nothing for granted . . . including loyalty!