Bernie Rhodenbarr: 5 BOOKS I CAN READ MORE THAN ONCE…OR TWICE…OR…

I get to do a lot of reading on the job. (No, not the job that involves breaking and entering. I’m talking about my day job, selling pre-owned works of literature at Barnegat Books on East Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village.) Far too many of those diurnal hours are spent with only my cat for company, so I usually have a book at hand when I’m otherwise unoccupied behind the counter.

Much of the time, it’s a book I’ve read before, and sometimes more than once. There’s a great comfort in settling down with a novel I know I’ll enjoy—because I’ve already done so. But not every book that’s a pleasure the first time around is going to wear well on a second visit.

Here are five—now how did I come up with that number?—that never let me down:

Flashfire1. The Parker series, by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark. The University of Chicago Press has just reissued the complete series in trade paperback, and that’s a good thing, because my own copies have fallen apart from frequent rereading. Do I like Parker because he’s a thief? Well, I’m sure that’s part of his charm, but I just plain like the way Parker thinks and acts and reacts, and the way Richard Stark writes.

Westlake wrote another wonderful series about a gang of criminals led by a remarkably hapless chap named John Dortmunder, and those are wonderful, too, but I don’t find myself returning to them the same way. The Parker books are self-contained, but it’s best to start with The Hunter (the basis for the great Lee Marvin film Point Blank) and read them in order. Of course, when you’re rereading, you’ve been here before—so you can feel free to skip around.

YearoftheFrench2. Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French. Flanagan wrote three wonderful historical novels set in Ireland. This one takes place in 1798, when Ireland rose in revolt—in Wexford (“But the gold sun of freedom grew darkened at Ross / And it set by the Slaney’s red waves / And poor Wexford, stripped naked, hung high on the cross / With her heart pierced by traitors and slaves. / Glory-o Glory-o for the bold men who died / For the sake of long downtrodden man! / Glory-o to Mount Leinster’s own darlin’ and pride / Dauntless Kelly, the boy from Killane!”) and Dublin and in the West. (“So here’s to the gallant old West / Where hearts are the bravest and best / When Ireland lay broken in Wexford / Hurrah for the men of the West!”)

I only like historical fiction when it’s wonderful, and this one is. As with the greatest tragedy, one keeps revisiting it in the hope that this time wound it’ll have a happy ending. But, as Elaine Scudder observed of La Boheme, “She always dies. How many times have I seen that opera? Mimi dies every @#$%^!! time.” Parts Two and Three of the trilogy, The Tenants of Time and The End of the Hunt, are also great books, but not as easy to get into.

QueensGambit3. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. There are books that are not mysteries, not genre fiction in any sense, yet they have a strong following among people who read mysteries. The late Carol Bremer of Murder Ink had a section of non-mysteries she recommended to readers. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe was one I recall finding there, and this wonderful novel was another.

The heroine is a chess prodigy, and the drama’s conducted largely over a chessboard, and you don’t have to know a knight and a bishop from Adam’s off ox in order to find every page gripping and engrossing. I’ve read it several times and am about ready to read it again.

rules of prey4. John Sandford’s books about Lucas Davenport are a richer experience the second time around. They’re so riveting, so suspenseful, that my only interest the first time around is to see what happens next. So I tear through the book and love it, but I miss a lot—and the books are sufficiently textured to make a second look rewarding. I was well into the series before I could begin to tell Davenport’s fellow cops apart, or care which one of them was riding shotgun.

A year or so ago I re-read the whole series, starting with Rules of Prey, and the books were still riveting (especially the two about Clara Rinker, who can park her shoes under this burglar’s bed anytime she wants to). But they were richer, too, and I got a lot more out of them. During The Burglar on the Prowl I was reading the one about a disillusioned ex–vegetarian Congregationalist minister making his brutal way around Minnesota, slaughtering prominent vegans and organic farmers, butchering them, and eating their livers. Have you read that one yet? Carolyn liked the title, too: Lettuce Prey.

styles5.  Some of you have noticed that I don’t look a day older than I did at my debut 36 years ago in Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. That’s one of the joys of being a fictional character. You get to be the same age forever. (Unless the person chronicling your existence is the kind of killjoy who insists on aging you in real time. That’s what happened to Matthew Scudder, the poor bastard.) But not I, and not either of Agatha Christie’s brightest stars, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.

Poirot was an elderly retired Belgian detective in his (and Dame Agatha’s) debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, back in 1920; when his curtain came down with Curtain in 1975, well, he wasn’t any younger, but he wasn’t any older either.

And the same can be said for Miss Marple, who like Poirot starred in a long run of superbly crafted mysteries. I think I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many of them more than once, especially the Marples, because I find her continually interesting. I always found Poirot to be a stick festooned with mannerisms, and I find it astonishing that someone’s going to revive Poirot and write a new novel about him. Why, for the love of Dieu? Without Christie’s plotting, what would you have? Marple’s different, but even so, I don’t see much point in bringing her back. If you want to revive somebody, figure out a way to bring Agatha Christie back to life. Failing that, reread the books. There’s always a good supply of them at Barnegat Books.

Bernie Rhodenbarr stars in the Burglar novels by Lawrence Block, the eleventh of which, THE BURGLAR WHO COUNTED THE SPOONS, will be released on December 25, 2013.