He began his tour in Berkeley and began his reading with this introduction: "Bernie is a burglar and book seller. That's as much preparation as you need." Then Block read chapter two of "The Burglar in the Library" to chuckles and laughter from the audience. Bernie is a card.
Block is a balding man of middle age who, on this July night, wore a red shirt and beige slacks. He has a mustache, too. He doesn't look like a mystery writer - whatever they look like - but rather like a hard-working insurance salesman, perhaps. He is a master at creating crisp, quippy dialogue and his plots are intricate. Yet at the conclusion of each story all the pieces fall neatly into place.
In addition to writing several different series featuring a cast of very distinctly unusual leading men -- Bernie Rhodenbarr (8 books), Evan Tanner (7) , Matt Scudder (11), Leo Haig (3) and Chip Harrison (3) -- Block also has written 24 other books. Prolific? Yikes!
He also writes short stories, writes a detailed newsletter alerting his many fans to his public appearances, writes books on how to master fiction, travels to Europe with his wife, Lynne, attends mystery conferences and answers his own e-mail. It's a wonder he finds time to sleep. Maybe he doesn't.
When authors field questions from the public, the No. 1 most frequently asked question is usually: "How do you think of your plots?" For a change, no one asked Block this question and it's too bad because he is a remarkably consistent creative writer whose imagination is matched only by his output. However, the answer would probably be something like this: Training. Through years of hard writing he's come to realize that he can make a mystery out of just about anything.
Maybe it's a skill he was born with. Like some people need only two or three hours of sleep a night, he can spin a tale sparked by just a few words or images. Whatever, it works.
"I am to be regarded, I've come to realize, as a sort of loose cannon on the deck of HMS Literature," he said. "There is, alas, no way to know what I'm going to do next."
What his reading public is going to see soon, however, is a new book featuring Evan Tanner. It will be out about a year from now.
"The new book stars an old friend whose adventures I haven't chronicled in over a quarter of a century," said Block. "I wrote seven books about him in the late '60s. Tanner, as some of you will recall, has lived in a state of unremitting insomnia ever since his sleep center was destroyed by a shard of shrapnel in the Korean War. He has since earned a living writing term papers and theses for college students and has learned dozens of languages and championed innumerable lost causes."
Signet is going to be reissuing the early Tanner books in paperback in the fall of '98 and it was in anticipation of the re-release that Block started thinking about Tanner again. But Block faced a problem.
"(Tanner) would be in his mid 60s by now, a little long in the tooth for a border-jumping action-adventure hero. And I didn't want to make him fictionally ageless, nor did I want to write a period piece. I wanted the book set in the present time and I wanted Tanner to be in his late 30s or early 40s, and realistically so. Impossible, right? As soon as I figured out how to do it, I pretty much had to write the book. And did, and had a good time with it. I don't have a title yet, but I can tell you that it's set in Burma," he said.
"And will there be more Tanners? Hey, why ask me? It's become increasingly clear that I never know what to expect, least of all from myself."
Whatever comes next, Block fans (Bockheads?) already know it will be good. And they won't have to wait long, either.