This is the first book in Lawrence Block's "Burglar" series featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr. Block is perhaps best known for his Matthew Scudder series which is often dark, violent, and humorless. Like the Scudder series, the Bernie books are also set in New York City; otherwise they're the polar opposite of the Scudders. They're light, not at all violent, and often hilariously funny. The fact that the two series could be written by the same author is simply another testament to the skill of Lawrence Block (not that he needs any further testament in this regard.)
Bernie is a gentleman in the truest sense. He only burgles places that he expects to be empty and he would never commit any act of physical violence against his victims. He generally chooses well-heeled targets who can afford the losses. He's an expert at picking locks, and is one of the few in his profession who can defeat the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art Rabson lock which rich people often choose as their principle line of defense against burglary. He never makes a mess, and leaves the places he burgles exactly as he found them, save for the items he's taken with him.
Bernie only does a few jobs a year, which allows him to live comfortably. But in almost every recorded adventure, Bernie stumbles across a body. The cops discover the body, occasionally with Bernie still on the premises, and immediately assume that he is the killer. Bernie then must use all his skills and intelligence to get himself off the hook and point the police at the Real Killer. He's a very charming and appealing protagonist--just the sort of guy that a crime fiction fan would love to spend an evening with every once in a while.
In this case, Bernie takes a job for hire. Someone offers him $5,000 (still a considerable sum of money when the book first appeared in 1977) to break into an apartment and steal a small blue box. Bernie has no idea what might be in the box, only that it's supposed to be in an antique roll-top desk. The man who lives in the apartment is supposed to be out at the theatre for the evening.
Bernie gets into the apartment without any difficulty and goes directly to the desk. He opens that without a problem either, but the box is nowhere in sight. While Bernie is still standing there, pondering the situation, two cops arrive at the door. Someone has reported hearing a noise in the apartment and they've arrived to investigate.
Of course, Bernie is mystified. He hasn't made a sound since he arrived but, nonetheless he's in deep trouble. Fortunately, one of the cops recognizes Bernie and when Bernie offers them a quick thousand dollars, they agree to let him go and pretend they never saw him. But then one of the cops goes to use the john and discovers a dead body in the bedroom. Suddenly the entire picture has changed and before the cops can react, Bernie rushes out the door and goes into hiding. A city-wide manhunt is soon on, with Bernie's picture splashed across the pages of all the papers, identifying him as a cold-blooded murderer. With that, the race is on and Bernie will have to work fast and furiously to get out of this mess.
I've really enjoyed all the books in the series, along with everything else that Block has ever written. I reread this book this week for one of my book clubs and really enjoyed Bernie's origin story all over again. Now I just have to somehow find the time to go back and reread a lot more of them.