John Dunning: Literary Mysteries for Booklovers
A BOOKLOVER'S DELIGHT
I love books, old and new. I like the smell of them, the way they feel in your hands, the dazzling book jackets and cover illustrations, the magic of what is contained between the covers and in some cases their history and their collectability. I love the crazy world of book collecting where rare copies can exchange hands for millions from the very first printed Guttenberg bible to a Stephen King or a JK Rowling original.
As a confirmed bibliophile and also a lover of mysteries, the joy of discovering an author who sets his mysteries in the world of book dealing and collecting is a double whammy.
It should come as no surprise, as John Dunning himself is a book scout and dealer from Denver.
THE BOOKMAN MYSTERIES
I stumbled upon Dunning while holidaying in US and grabbed a paperback copy of Booked to Die from a supermarket shelf. I finished the book in one sitting (didn’t sleep) and desperately wanted more. I was able to buy the second in the series Bookman’s Wake from Amazon and that didn’t disappoint either. The books were set in the world of book dealing and the mysteries themselves revolved around antiquarian book trade, offering remarkable insights around book collecting and collectors. This didn’t compromise the quality of the mystery within, no sir, it actually enhanced the quality of the read for me. The plot was intricate and gripping and a very satisfying finale. It’s no surprise that the first book of the series won the ‘Nero’ Award for best mystery of the year. Since then he has been nominated for an 'Edgar' a few times. ( Nero and Edgar are mystery writer's Oscars named after Rex Stout's creation Nero Wolfe and legendary scribe of mystery thrillers Edgar Wallace)
But brilliant as he is, Dunning is not a prolific writer. Unlike the Michael Connellys, Patricia Cornwells and Jonathan Kellermans of this world, who effortlessly churnout a bestseller a year, Dunning takes his time, and boy does he take his time. You can see from the list that his sparse offerings only make you hunger for more.
John Dunning was born in 1942 in Brooklyn NY but was raised in Charleston, SC. John had suffered from ADHD ( which was unheard of in the 50s) and struggled through school and was labeeld a poor student. After being released from the army due to a perforated eardrum, he took up a lowly paid job in a Charleston glass shop. He moved to Denver, Colorado in 1964 to work as a stable hand for a few years. He says in his own website how much he enjoyed this time of his life, much of this experience probably ended up in the 5thJaneway mystery, the Bookwoman’s last Fling as it is set in the world of racing and horse owners.
In 1966 he got a job as a copy boy at the Denver post, slowly working his way up through the ranks and ending up as a journalist and part of a team of investigative reporters. He wrote a couple of reasonably well received thrillers in the 80s, Looking for Ginger North and The Holland suggestions. He also wrote two other novels in this period, Deadline and Denver.
Perhaps his ADHD got in the way of publisher pressure in meeting Deadlines or perhaps there were other reasons, but John stopped writing and started the old Algonquin book store in Denver in 1984. His intense knowledge of bookworld and his contacts with fellow writers and their constant pestering made him return to writing and in 1992 Cliff Janeway was born to much critical and commercial acclaim. 2 years after John and His wife closed the store and it has been an online bookstore ever since.
John’s other passion is old radio shows and his encyclopaedic knowledge into these led him to hosting a weekly radio show in Denver for over 25 years. He has published two reference books on this subject ( listed below) and has also acted as a consultant in the Robert Altman film Thieves like us. The film was set in 1937 and Altman in his own inimitable style wanted it scored with old radio shows and John Dunning was at hand to help.
THE CLIFF JANEWAY SERIES
Fellow booklovers and mystery fans, I present to you the fantastic world of Cliff Janeway, cop turned book lover and book dealer, American mid west’s answer to Bernie Rhodenbarr (only not a thief) a man of honour, integrity and true grit. A sleuth, a gentleman and a charmer. You will come to love him.
1. Booked to Die
2. The Bookman's Wake
3. The Bookman's Promise
4. The Sign of the Book
5. The BookWoman's Last Fling
BOOKED TO DIE
Cop turned bookshop owner Cliff Janeway has a nose for collectible books but is thankfully unable to switch off his sleuthing Cop instincts. After being suspended from the force for alleged brutality, Cliff quits the force in disgust, returning to his passion of old books. A long time frequenter of the book –row in Denver, Janeway rents a space and starts the store Twice Told books. Not long after he stumbles upon a case of a murdered book scout, a case which Denver police seem to have no interest in solving. The tortuous case leads him deeper in deeper into the shenanigans of the book dealing world, where the passion for a good book can alarmingly turn murderous. Asked to appraise a collection, Janeway meets a charming but secretive fellow book dealer, and the plot twists and turns until a satisfying finale. Along the way much to every Bibliophile’s delight.
Dunning scathingly puts down ( through Janeway and other characters) the ‘muggles’ who don’t understand the value of books and the love of books. He offers insight after insight into the world of book collecting, offers tips and tricks and in general fills his book to the brim with useful but never boring trivia about the bookworld.
An absolute delight of a read, and in a stroke of delicious irony, the first edition of this is a highly collectible book now, itself.
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THE BOOKMAN'S WAKE
Ex-cop and book sleuth Cliff Janeway goes on a hunt for a frightened young fugitive Eleanor , who may be in possessing of a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poes’ ‘The Raven’. In this ambitious sequel to Booked to Die, Dunning takes his bookman on treacherous journey worthy of Poe himself. The mysterious pedigree of the Grayson Press edition of Poe, the intricacies of font types and printing presses, the trail of blood that seems to follow the book’s wake, all conspire to enthral book lovers and mystery lovers alike.
This book goes one better on the first and as there is no backstory and scene setting, cracks along at a good pace. Along the way, Dunning continues his scathing attack on the troglodytes who deface books including those publishers themselves who seem to want to deface the very books they publish when they are sold as remaindered copies!
Cheer along with Dunning’s delicious put downs on those who feel the need to scribble in a book! My own personal peeve is those who fold the top corner of a page to ‘bookmark’ it. It drives me crazy. It does.
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THE BOOKMAN'S PROMISE
It rook Dunning eight years after the previous instalment to come up with this third addition but it was worth the wait.
After purchasing a first edition of a Richard Burton book (‘ the explorer/spy/author not the actor!’) Cliff Janeway is intrigued when the 90 year old Ms Gallant turns up and claims the book to be her own. What more, she gives him a fascinating story about how that book belonged to her own grandfather who allegedly was a travelling companion to Richard Burton himself. She tells him of a whole treasure hoard of first editions including a previously unknown book about Burton’s secret mission to the civil war torn America sets Janeway on the path through shady dealers, ethics free writers and romantic liaisons.
Dunning offers fascinating background into the life of Richard Burton ( a polyglot explorer who spoke many eastern languages - he was also the first to translate a lot of eastern works like Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra into English). The mystery takes Janeway to Baltimore and culminates in an abandoned and crumbling Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston. The said fort forms the centrepiece for an exciting and illuminating flashback involving Burton’s travels to America and his encounter with a Captain Abner.
A thrilling addition to any book lover and mystery lover this book also offers the added attraction of Richard Burton and the civil war for people who love history and the civil war.
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THE SIGN OF THE BOOK
Asked by his current flame (a lawyer) Erin D’Angelo to help out an old friend Laura Marshall, who also happened to be married to Erin’s old boyfriend, Janeway arrives a small town full of intrigue and infamy behind picket fences.
Laura is accused of murdering her husband who also happens to be a book collector. Soon the plot boils with Janeway crossing with the local cops, schmoozing with the Judge, investigating an astonishing collection of signed first editions that seem out of place in that household. The Trail takes him to the astonishing trade in autographed editions and the conniving underbelly of the book dealers world. There are twists aplenty and the plot takes on a soap opera quality when Laura asks her dead husband's ex-lover to defend her in the trial. Erin never forgave her for stealing her boyfriend and marrying him.
Slightly overcomplicated with the relationship triangle( nay, a tetrahedron!) the book still delivers fast paced muscular action and a satisfying finale.
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THE BOOKWOMAN'S LAST FLING
John Dunning suddenly does a Dick Francis on us by switching from the world of book dealing ot the world of horse racing by throwing Janeway into the murky world of thoroughbred horses and thoroughly bred women. Involving the death of a book collector and stable owner HR Geiger, Janeway is called to appraise the collection in Idaho but is soon knee deep in more than horse muck.
Disappearing volumes, replacement counterfeit versions, Three squabbling brothers, an alluring femme banale the plot meanders through race tracks with Janeway feeling the urge to turn horse groomer. The books in this plot seem superfluous to what could have been a racetrack thriller and the book does slightly disappoint. But for a Janeway completist it is still a good read.
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Most of Dunning's non-series older books are now reissued and back in print. His Encyclopedic knowledge of Old Time Radio has culminated in two generous compendia called Tune in Yesterday & On the air for lovers of Old time radio shows.
John Hasn't produced a Janeway novel since 2006. It is hard to complain now that I know Dunning was suffering medical problems – a benign brain tumour that was partially removed in 2006 . He has endured a long recovery and lets hope he is back at his typewriter restoring the old Janeway magic.
There is renewed interest in Dunning's other books and there is a re-issue of Denver and paperback version of Two o'clock Eastern Wartime available now, as are all his Cliff Janeway books.
Get well John and give us another Cliff Janeway book!
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Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2011
Other Books By John Dunning
1.The Holland Suggestions
2. Looking for Ginger North
5.Two o' Clock Eastern Wartime
6. Tune in Yesterday
7. On the Air