Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
John Dunning has been working on his award-winning book-centered mystery series, the Cliff Janeway novels, for over two decades at this point, offering a taste of something unique in a sea of thrillers. The first novel which started it all, Booked to Die, introduces us to the Cliff Janeway as he first loses his badge by taking a bit of revenge on a murder suspect, and then opens a small bookshop while still searching for evidence to take the man down for good… and this is when more bodies start appearing.
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John Dunning Introduces Cliff Janeway
With the advent of digital technology, online videos, movies, and e-readers, books as they were once known are slowly fading out of popular culture. Few people these days are interested in owning physical copies, and even fewer take pleasure in owning rare and first editions. Thankfully, there are still, at the very least, book characters willing to take up such a mantle, as does Cliff Janeway in John Dunning‘s Booked to Die.
The story is naturally centred on Cliff, a Denver homicide detective, and more importantly, an avid collector of rare books. These rare books have been largely purchased from Bobby Westfall, a local bookscout who largely keeps to himself… until the day he is found murdered, and a suspect is fingered in Jackie Newton.
Lacking any proper evidence and facing an absolute master at evading the law, Cliff opts for a more old-school approach, dishing out a bit of his own off-duty justice on Jackie. Naturally, this costs him his badge and law enforcement career in general, forcing him down the path of his lifelong passion: running a small bookshop.
While his official life as a detective might be over, Cliff never stopped looking for evidence to put Jackie away for good, but in the process he might have stumbled onto something a little more sinister.
When extremely expensive books from a rare and coveted collection begin to appear, dead bodies seem to follow in their wake… a case Cliff cannot ignore, no matter which side of the law he might be on. Though he doesn’t know it, Cliff’s life is about to take a lot of sharp and drastic turns, destined to be changed forever and setting him on the path of his true calling.
The Detailed Hunt for Rare Editions in Booked to Die
At first glance, when I picked up the book, I expected it to be a fairly standard murder mystery, with the world of literature being used as a backdrop for our characters’ stories. However, the more I got into it, the more I realized this novel wasn’t going to be nearly as surface-level as I had expected at first.
From the very start, John Dunning takes good care in building up the characters and the setting, taking us on a rather interesting and revealing tour of Denver’s ins and outs. While I myself have never visited the place, I feel like I’m practically halfway there now after reading this book. What’s more, the descriptions seldom drag on and are mostly captivating for the little details they bring to light. On top of giving us an excursion through the city the likes of which tour guides shy away from, Dunning also places a strong focus on introducing us to the unexpectedly-layered realm of rare book hunting.
If, like myself, you’re interested in the subject of rare books, what they represent, how they are found and acquired, what they’re worth, and so on and so forth, Booked to Die is as good a place as any to start.While it is true the murder mystery sometimes does take a bit of a backseat to learning about rare books, it’s not something I minded in the least due to my interest in the topic.
However, if you are much more interested in murder mysteries and don’t care for rare book hunting, then I could see how some passages might feel like they drag on. In other words, it’s important to know what you’re getting into here.
The Suffering Detective
Despite there being a large focus placed on the element I mentioned above, I found the actual murder mystery itself to be equally engaging, if not even more so. Just like when it comes to literature, Cliff has a true passion for solving murders; his interest and enthusiasm became contagious after a certain point, and I felt as draw and attached to the whole web of intrigue as he was.
The mystery itself also isn’t nearly as straightforward as it first appears, and I have to give Dunning his due credit here as it’s definitely not easy to come up with an intrigue appearing simple on the surface but holding true depth beneath it.
It felt to me as if the motivation behind the murder was as important to uncover as Jackie’s true engagement in it. Unlike with the majority of murder mystery novels, we’re not simply looking for the real culprit here, but are also pushed to try and understand how it all happened, and perhaps most importantly, why.
I should note this isn’t a lighthearted novel by any stretch of the imagination, having a good dose of violence and murder to dish out as well. Rest assured, none of it is senseless or gratuitous, and the relative sparsity with which the element is used make it stand out rather starkly in the story.
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Cliff’s own character was also a point of interest for me, to see his transformation and growth from the very beginning when he was a homicide detective who lost control of himself, to the end where he finds his place in life as a bookseller and citizen detective. His world holds a good deal of suffering, and I’m quite curious to see where other novels in the series might take him.
The Final Verdict
Booked to Die by John Dunning is an excellent murder mystery based in the world of rare book collecting, offering us a great deal of insight into this secretive world and the people in it, all while unfolding a complex intrigue which challenges the reader to conduct their own investigation along the way.
If you enjoy murder mysteries and stories revolving around rare books and literature in general, then I believe this is definitely a novel you’ll want to check out.
John Dunning is an American writer of detective fiction as well as non-fiction books. His most prominent works are his series of reference books on old-time radio, as well as his mystery series featuring the ex-policeman and bookseller Cliff Janeway, featuring titles such as Booked to Die and The Bookman’s Promise. The former of the two won him the Nero Award and was also nominated for the 1993 Anthony Award.