*** Booked to Die, John Dunning, 1992
[Note: This review was written in 2003.]
This is the perfect one-two punch for lovers of detective fiction. It hits home right in the things we love most: a good mystery and books. Winner of a Nero Wolfe Award, Booked To Die is the first book featuring Cliff Janeway, homicide cop and collector of modern first editions.
I came across this little jewel right after I moved to Denver. I had discovered the pleasure of reading regional detective fiction when Jody recommended Tony Hillerman back in the 80s. After a decade of soaking up every Hillerman I could find, I moved to Arizona. A few trips through the Four Corners region were rendered more enjoyable by having spent so much time there with Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. It was a rare pleasure to actually see the places I had read about.
So when I moved to Denver, I figured what better way to get a feel for the city than to read some books set there. I happened to make the acquaintance of a Rocky Mountain News editor at the Friday schmooze-fest at Edward’s Pipe and Tobacco and asked him if he knew of any fiction set in Denver. He racked his considerable memory and came up with the name John Dunning. I surfed the used bookstores and found two titles, all that were available at the time. I was hooked before I had turned 3 pages.
The story opens with the murder of a book scout, which introduces us not only to the puzzle but also to the subtext of the story, Janeway’s love of books. Janeway is a fairly hard-boiled detective with an obsession to put away one particular bad guy. He does what lots of tough-guy protagonists do, takes the more confrontational path when dealing with people. I guess there are people who do that on a regular basis. I’m fortunate enough not to spend much time around them.
But Janeway isn’t all tough hide and prickles. He has a good relationship with his girlfriend, another cop, even if he is obsessively private. The story takes us through the used-book trade, from the Goodwill twenty-five cent stacks to the private-showing-only collections of signed firsts with special histories. For a book lover, it makes the story twice as enjoyable.
Dunning is a past master at characterization, plot and pacing. The only thing that I thought could have been edited out was Janeway’s occasional divergence into personal reflections on politics and social issues, although they were all in character. And while Janeway is sometimes reminiscent of Tres Navarre, which is a good thing, Dunning doesn’t have that startling turn of phrase that makes me sit up and smile and grab the cell phone like Rick Riordan. But then, how many do?
But these are minor quibbles. Not only is this book is worth reading, it’s worth re-reading, which is the measure of a keeper.
Other works by John Dunning: