Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

The Bookman's Promise
Scribner (2004) 369 pages
* * *

Also noted in this review:
Booked to Die/The Bookman's Wake
Scribner (2004) 691 pages
* * * * ½

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

When people ask me who my favorite contemporary fiction writer is, I tell them John Dunning—and he is. But while I wanted badly to write something retrospectively about the two previous books in his Cliff Janeway series, Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake (trade crime-genre paperbacks from the mid-90s), I almost hated to publicly mention them! They're just great, super... a highbrow author writing seemingly lowbrow "genre" cult classics about a Denver cop-turned rare book dealer. I hadn't read such a mix of pure entertainment peppered with intellectual stimulation since mid-period Robertson Davies, though I liked these books more. These are stimulating and hilarious, a genre parodies that out-noirs the genre they parody. And they're the most informative fiction about rare books ever written.

But now the cat's out of the bag—Scribner's re-released the books under its own imprint in hardcover at the same time as two-time Edgar nominee Dunning has put out this, a third Janeway novel that we'd all hoped for but doubted we'd ever see, and a fourth book has been announced. Now, rare book dealers are collecting first editions of Dunning. In the age of Internet e-text, the work of this sixty-ish book Dealer-turned-novelist has become a multi-textual phenomenon.

And, like a lot of other people, I just can't get enough of it.

With novels written in a crime or mystery "genre" especially, it's essential not to include spoilers; yet Dunning's books are so difficult to review because they're so exceptional. A simple back-jacket plot synopsis would (and at first, did) create the impression that these books are simply more run-of-the-mill detective page-turning rehash.

And guess what. They are! Remember that mid-90s spate of films, some better than others (I Know What You Did Last Summer) that parodied the Horror genre while being pretty good horror films themselves—in a way? On one level, that's what Dunning does with the detective/crime genre, but better. I mean to the tenth power.

He chooses this "genre" because it allows him to be truly hilarious at one level while still entertaining to the masses on another, and the plots focus on a character that is often out searching for books that operate the same way! Dunning is a solid, tight, excellent writer, possessed of a wealth of knowledge about books such as his protagonist/narrator seeks, and yet the author is better than good in terms of the complex ironies he constructs. One level, these are well-written tightly-plotted stories of a bookman-turning-cop and solving murders concerning valuable objects, but the real rub here is that on another level, the text and history of the books he's looking for (and the lives of their famous authors) serve as both clues, red herrings, and solutions, for the initiated... and even then, there's always a twist.

Or more than one. Here comes the third level:

Okay, you thought you were smart? Hey! You were close, but you got it wrong after all! See, this is just a Detective Novel, after all.

John Dunning's books are far better than many his protagonist's "bookscouts" search for. You might find his books in the Crime section, but I found the new one in the Literature section (where they keep the Chandler and the Hammitt). I'm secretly a fan of detective fiction, classic detective fiction, all of it, I have been for twenty-five years—and Dunning, who I hadn't heard of until somebody gave me a dog-eared, creased-spine, pulp-papered, embossed-lettered dimestore paperback of Booked to Die a couple or three years ago, is among the ten or so best detective fiction writers who ever lived.

That's why I started buying up all his cheap paperbacks and giving them to everybody I knew who cared about reading, more or less. I was in a mania—like a character out of one of the books itself. Just as in the books, Life was imitating Art.

So how does he do it? As with most genre detective fiction, the characters are drawn pretty... large. Including the idealistic narrator protagonist, Cliff Janeway. He's the Good Guy—but I don't particularly like him. For me, this is integral to both the irony and the success of the novels. I wonder how many other readers have seen this—there's a real dark side to Janeway's ruthless idealism, and though such novels are set up where you have to pull for the protagonist, there's more than a bit of the "anti-hero" in Janeway, who often becomes a little cartoonish—as in the new book, where he's perhaps less convincing than in the previous two.

Part of the reason for this is that he's "on the road," out of his Denver Bookman's Row element—and Dunning seems to assume that the readers of the new book will have also read the previous two.

And he's probably right (except that a layoff of almost a decade is a bit long for that assumption), and yet the present book is shorter and slighter, and less "alive" than the other two books, with which it must necessarily be discussed. Yet it's still an engrossing and entertaining page-turner.

Still, one relates more strongly to certain of the other characters, and a strong element of the success of any suspense plot is located in its Possibility—one senses it would be not only possible but almost plausible for Dunning to kill off Janeway at any moment and just keep right on going.

In fact, this possibility is so strong an aspect of the plot that it's almost inevitable; Janeway is constantly aware of his own aging and mortality, and in every hairy situation makes sure things are set up where a second (usually a female lover/promising book scout) can take over in the event of his death. Of course, this aspect of vulnerability augments the tension of every climax, and like Chandler, for example, Dunning is keenly aware of the irresistible human attraction to sex in the possibility of death. Though for Janeway, sex is a game—his only real passions are Books and Honor. This is why love will ultimately be his "downfall," and Dunning can and has created stronger female characters to fence with this Bookman than he does in The Bookman's Promise. But all real literary detectives are misogynists, aren't they?

Don't get me wrong about its quality—the present book is a hell of an entertaining ride, with sparkles of brilliance. But now we know there's another Janeway book on its way, so perhaps this one's the Red Herring of the four (and there are always four, ever noticed that?). And "red herring." Take that any way you like, but start at the first. Read all three books through in sequence, and we'll all wait for the fourth.

All three books are terrific, and all three are slightly different. And John Dunning—I envy the man. I think he's having a great time, writing these things, inspiring countless conversations and a few articles like this one, and I hope I made you want to read this stuff, because at the very least you'll never see books themselves in the same way—and that is an achievement. In the next volume, Dunning could and probably will do something like the exact opposite of what I've suggested he's going to do, and I'll be faked out yet again as Janeway walks off into the Denver sunset with a signed first edition of The Lady of the Lake or something. But you can bet it'll be funny, parodic, and entertainment with Substance.


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