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Book sleuth

John Dunning on forgery, writing and The Sign of the Book


Denver novelist John Dunning has created a leading man who defies stereotypes -- Cliff Janeway, a hard-boiled former cop turned seller of rare and collectible books.

In his newest Janeway book, The Sign of the Book, Dunning turns his considerable talent for both storytelling and book collecting toward the investigation of a murder in fictional mountain town Paradise, Colo., involving a book trafficking ring, a crooked cop, a mysterious defendant and an unlikely forger of signatures who can ramp up the value of a book with the sweep of a pen.

The forging of signatures, says Dunning, who ran Algonquin Books in Denver until he took the business online a few years back, is a common problem in the booksellers' world.

"[Putting a forger in the book] was not a real stretch for me," said the author, "because I believe there's a lot of that going on out there.

"If, say, you can get John Wayne's book America: Why I Love Her signed, it can be a nice piece. You have people who do that and turn a $35 or $40 book into a $300 or $400 book."

Janeway, a tough, smart and sexy protagonist, started out in Booked to Die, the first book in the series, as a full-time cop. Then, halfway through the book, he opened his bookstore, a rare and collectible shop on Denver's Colfax Avenue. The character reflects Dunning's own experiences as a journalist and bookseller.

"Years ago, I worked at the Denver Post. I rode with the cops, went to homicide scenes, got to know how cops work pretty well," he said. "Janeway quit the cops in a fit of anger, much as I quit the Post.

"I opened a store out on East Colfax, just where Janeway has his store. I spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of a character, a cop who becomes a book dealer; then I finally woke up one morning and said, 'I've gotta kick this guy in the butt.' It was almost as if [Janeway] was apologetic about existing."

Bringing Janeway to life delivered Dunning from obscurity as an author ("I wrote five books back in the '70s and '80s and never made a dent in the New York publishing scene.") to popularity and a long-term contract with Scribner.

Writing, he says, has not gotten easier, though the process has changed over the years.

"I used to sit down and plot out the character, asking, what kind of character is this? What does he want? What's he afraid of? I'd write reams of that stuff and rarely use it.

"Now I come down to my room and kind of float. I take these little steps toward the end of the book."

Being a writer, says Dunning, in spite of his popular success with Janeway, is a masochistic pursuit.

"If I had to sketch out my own life again, I probably wouldn't be a writer. But as it is, I can't not do it.

"I do it because ever since I was young, before I could write, I wanted to be a writer. I'd go to the movies with my grandma and come home and rewrite the movie."

Currently at work on the next Janeway novel, set in Idaho and California, Dunning spends a good deal of time writing letters back to fans who respond to his books.

"They write and buck up your day when nothing is going right. You hear from people who tell you how absolutely wonderful you are. That's the reader I'm writing for; I'm not writing for the money.

"Of course," he adds, "you can never do it as well as you think you can."

-- Kathryn Eastburn


The Sign of the Book

By John Dunning

(Scribner: New York)


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