Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
John Dunning has recently written a few mysteries revolving around books with a flair for the genre few can match. More precisely, he penned the Cliff Janeway Novels, and in the third entry in the series, The Bookman’s Promise, a complex mystery is afoot involving an old and lost collection of rare books, as well as a killer quite intent on letting secrets remain in the deep past.
Table of contents
John Dunning Raises a Mystery from the Past
While a major chunk of the written works in human history has found its way into some form of record, whether physical or online, I think it’s fair to say there are still plenty of old and lost books floating about in the world. In The Bookman’s Promise by John Dunning, the third entry in the Cliff Janeway Novels, a whole collection of such books spins the wheel of a far-reaching mystery.
Fresh off his adventures in the previous novel, ex-cop Cliff Janeway has recently made an excellent acquisition at an auction: a signed first edition book by the legendary 19th century explorer, Richard Francis Burton. In it, he details his journey to Mecca and Medina while disguised as a Muslim.
However, the book turns out to have a much more troubled history than he could have first assumed, something he learns when an old woman by the name of Josephine Gallant pays him a sudden visit. She is convinced the book belongs to her, having once been part of her grandfather’s precious collection of Burton classics.
In the last years of her life, she asks a request Cliff cannot bring himself to refuse: to find her grandfather’s lost collection, now likely scattered into various parts of the country, if not the world. The only real clue he has to go on is the book in his possession and the knowledge Josephina’s grandfather travelled with Burton to the troubled American South in the 1960s.
His head bulging with questions, Cliff dives head-first into the adventure, but soon comes to regret his decision as a friend of his is murdered… quite possibly for a Burton book. With a killer prowling around and intent on keeping the past where it is, the stakes only rise and Cliff knows he won’t find peace until he gives the story a conclusion by his own hands.
The Passion for Literature in The Bookman’s Promise
I think it’s a bit of a no-brainer to say authors love books (though I guess there are always outliers), but not every genre allows for the expression of this passion, neither can every author get the point across in a meaningful manner. Perhaps even more importantly, still fewer are those who can successfully integrate it as part of the story.
In my opinion, John Dunning is one of the obvious exceptions, an author who successfully manages to conquer all of the challenges I’ve just mentioned. His love for the realm of literature is apparent from the very first strokes, and he often seizes the chance to show us just a little more of the fascinating world a rare book collector lives in.
Without getting carried away he gives us some interesting insights into how the whole business works, from where the books might come from to how they find their way into the hands of collectors, coloured by impressions and observations which I’m certain come from first-hand experience.
Whenever we take these little detours, the author’s overwhelming passion for the subject always shines through and gives the book a genuine feeling, meaning it was written for the love of the craft before anything else. This sort of enthusiasm is rather infectious, and has only made me curious to learn more on my own.
As I mentioned above, John Dunning doesn’t simply include this element for the heck of it. Instead, he connects it to the story, and going even a step further, makes it a central element to some of the events as well as the decisions made by characters. It’s a force driving the plot forward as much as the complex mystery itself.
To the Civil War for Answers
Comparing it with the previous two novels in the series, The Bookman’s Wake moves at a faster pace, which is quite welcome considering the amount of territory there is to cover from start to finish. The journey Cliff finds himself is a long one, sending him all the way to Baltimore and back in time all the way to the Civil War.
While the plot thread might be quite long, winding, and taking on complex shapes at times, John Dunning never overloads us with information. Instead, he tends to keep the focus fairly narrow, moving from one objective to the next while presenting a chain of events easily followed and remembered due to its solid sense of logic.
For the most part, the excitement factor is fairly high, especially as more and more dangerous characters are introduced, with all of them seemingly have an agenda to ruin Cliff’s life. There is, however, one section of The Bookman’s Promise I do feel the need to discuss.
At a certain point we are treated to a rather extended flashback to the days preceding the Civil War, and while it certainly makes for an interesting historical excursion, it puts the action to an unexpected halt. It did feel jarring at first, but after I understood what Dunning was doing I found the segment captivating in its own right.
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Additionally, it also serves to introduce to us the character of Burton, who isn’t alive in the present, at least not in strict sense of the term. Nevertheless, his presence is constantly felt looming over the story, especially as the unintended consequences of his deeds become apparent. The author’s ability to make him into a central and remarkable figure is worthy of drawing lessons from.
The Final Verdict
The Bookman’s Promise by John Dunning, in my opinion, surpasses the previous Cliff Janeway Novels, most notably in regards to the pace at which the plot evolves and its overall complexity. Taking the reader on a wild adventure into the world of rare books as well as the sordid past of the Civil War, it certainly stands as a one-of-a-kind novel.
If you’re a fan of the previous novels, or are looking for a quality mystery revolving around the domain of old books and secrets from the deep past, then I strongly recommend you give this book a shot.
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.