Well-known and widely revered Denver author John Dunning is not satisfied with merely writing a kinetic detective novel. In his new book, The Bookman's Promise, Dunning has written a multidimensional thriller, a two-tier historical novel, a rather charming love story, and a treatise on the etiquette of the rare-book trade.
Rule No. 1 in rare books: Paying a fair price for a book is preferable to murdering the book's owner.
Reluctant detective Cliff Janeway, ex-cop and book dealer, returns for a third appearance in a Dunning novel (previous Janeway novels were Booked to Die and The Bookman's Wake, both recently reprinted in an omnibus edition). The year is 1987, and Janeway has somewhat randomly become entrenched in collecting books written by 19th-century British explorer Sir Richard Burton.
Janeway, a lovable, wisecracking and self-examining narrator (his character will seem comfortably familiar to detective-novel enthusiasts), tells us of a series of relationships and meetings that all, eventually of course, tie together. We meet a Denver judge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, a lovely author escort, a poor and honest African-American couple, some unscrupulous book dealers, a nasty gangster and others. Few of the characters are who they seem, and Dunning masterfully strings us along until the end.
Janeway's task (and titular promise) becomes to seek out a rare library of Burton first editions, which may or may not exist. Dunning is an expert in rare books (a dealer himself), and has a strong Old World sense of the ethics of book trading. So much of the Janeway character is autobiographical, as Dunning expresses his knowledge and opinions through Janeway's actions and lectures. There are both transcendently lovely and horribly ugly sides to book collecting; it seems to bring out the best and worst in people. Here, Dunning reveals himself to be the Don Quixote of the gentle art that should be book dealing. He decries those who have not "paid their dues." He's correct, of course, but comes off a little cranky.
The self-referential nature of "biblio-mysteries" such as this book is fascinating, the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher print. For example, Dunning's first Janeway book, Booked to Die, poked fun at the phenomenon in which first editions of brand-new novels become more valuable than classics. Ironically, first printings of that book quickly began trading in the hundreds of dollars, and they still do.
Dunning perhaps overestimates the readers' interest in the life of Burton. A meeting with a dying elderly lady, Josephine Gallant, Janeway's Burton connection, degenerates into a lengthy exposition-as-dialogue. This much information would be fine for an essay, but is anathema to the development of an interesting fictional character. A good mystery character should be more dessert and less fiber.
Further, the book takes an extended side trip with an 1860 Burton visit to America, greatly bogging down the action. What little necessary plot information this section adds could have been provided much more quickly and painlessly.
That aside, and once Dunning has established all of the levels of intrigue, he takes us on a wonderful ride. Dunning is quite bold in letting things happen, and there are many surprises. Janeway spends much time in Denver, but also visits Baltimore and Charleston, giving us very vivid depictions of those places. All of the prior, seemingly unconnected events make sense in the end. The love story subplot is funny, moving and surprisingly realistic.
When writing something that attempts to be more than just an entertainment, an author is asking to be taken more seriously and therefore scrutinized more carefully. In that regard, Dunning does not fully succeed here. His commentary on class and race are simplistic and unformed. There are many implausible plot choices that would be less glaring in a book that simply moves from beginning to end. But kudos to Dunning for having such ambitions: lofty goals that partially succeed are far more commendable than gutless re-creations. We should all be proud to have a writer of Dunning's caliber in Colorado.
-- Michael Salkind
John Dunning will read and sign his new book
Thursday, March 18, 7:30 p.m.
Tattered Cover Book Store, Cherry Creek
2955 E. First Ave., Denver