John Dunning, Booked to Die (Pocket, 1992)
[originally posted 21Jan2002]
This book’s probably got a niche market in the same way that Christopher Morley’s wonderful turn-of-the-century bookstore-themed mysteries did. You’re going to get a lot more out of this book if you’ve ever trod the bibliophile’s path yourself, or at least have some other kind of collecting bug in your bonnet. Otherwise, you might do well to avoid this one.
Okay, now that we’ve got rid of the riffraff, let’s get down to brass tacks. This is a great little mystery that introduces us to Cliff Janeway, a Colorado cop who dreams of retiring from the force and opening his own rare bookstore. It doesn’t matter that every other shop on the street where he wants to open his is a rare bookstore; competition doesn’t apply to the types of folks who frequent rare bookstores. After all, most every copy of a rare book is different, and this gang is usually looking for that one specific typo that sets edition A apart from edition B and wants printing X; so many variables everyone’s bound to hve different stock. But Janeway’s bookstore dreams are a background to the novel, which is above all a mystery. There are two plotlines here. The first concerns the murder of a bookscout, one of that class just up from the homeless who make their living buying books at Goodwill and selling them to people who know what they’re worth. The second concerns a rather nasty person that Janeway’s been trying to nab for years. Due to the American system of justice, the guy keeps evading capture. Everyone else in the novel wants to combine the two; they’re convinced the nasty type did in the bookscout, and everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except our fearless narrator. Things get out of hand. Complications ensue. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be a mystery novel.
Where Dunning excels here is in the balance between the book talk and the mystery talk. Separating the two out would make for a passable novel about the book trade (think Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop as told by Mike Hammer) and a passable mystery novel (think My Gun Is Quick as told by Penelope Fitzgerald). Neither side suffers from the inclusion of the other, something which is rare indeed among novels that attempt to blend two such disparate streams of thought. Add to this Dunning’s eye for detail—the only stones that remain unturned are those necessary to set up the idea that these characters will continue on into other novels (a second Janeway novel, The Bookman’s Wake, has already been published)– and you’ve got a fun little read. It’s not earthshaking, it doesn’t break any new ground, and it’s a niche. More people remember Agatha Christie than Christopher Morley, too, but that doesn’t make Morley’s books any less wonderful. As Morley, so Dunning. Highly recommended for those who find themselves in the first paragraph of this review. *** ½