Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
John Dunning has become known in recent years for his ability as an author to integrate his love for books into his stories as pivotal plot elements. In The Bookman’s Wake, the second entry in the Cliff Janeway Novels series, we follow the cop-turned-bookdealer on his adventure to reign in a fugitive from Denver, one who possibly stole a priceless edition of Poe’s “The Raven”. To find the mysterious woman, he’ll have to delve deep into the strange past surrounding the book.
Table of contents
John Dunning Opens the Hunt for a Fugitive
The realm of literature, while being alive, well and still going, has sadly been diminished from what it was decades, if not centuries ago. The rise of additional mediums of entertainment requiring less effort to consume and geared towards short attention spans has pushed books into a bit of a back seat. With physical copies now being phased out for digital ones, novels like John Dunning‘s The Bookman’s Wake truly begin to stand out.
Many of us still have a strong love for literature and physical book collection, and Dunning seems to have made it his mission to integrate this passion of his as a central point in his Cliff Janeway Novels series.
In any case, the story begins by introducing us to Cliff, the cop-turned-bookdealer, as he receives a tempting from an ex-cop: help him bring a bail-jumping fugitive back from Seattle. What muddies the water, however, is the fugitive being a vulnerable young woman, Eleanor Rigby, and a talented book scout, who allegedly got her hands on a priceless edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”.
Rather intrigued by the whole affair and without much of an idea as to who he can trust on this, Cliff decides to dive right in for two simple reasons: the intrigue he feels for Eleanor, and his love for rare volumes. However, there is someone very dangerous and mysterious on her tail, and they’re willing to do virtually anything to get their hands on her literary fortune.
The world was getting dangerously crowded with crazy people.― John Dunning, The Bookman’s Wake
To find the key to the intricately-woven web of mystery he has found himself in, Cliff will have to delve deep into the sordid history behind the rare edition everyone is lusting after, as well as its author. What’s more, the ex-cop who hired him seems to have a hidden agenda of his own, one involving a double murder committed years ago.
The Ethics of a Bookdealing Cop in The Bookman’s Wake
With Cliff Janeway himself being such a big and important part of the story, I think it’s only fair to spend a bit of time talking about the man himself. After all, the large portion of our time, if not of all of it, is spent by his side, following his reasoning, deductions, intuitions and whatnot.
Before proceeding further, I should mention this is the second book in the Cliff Janeway Novels series, but it can very much work as a standalone piece of writing. You don’t need to be familiar with the first novel, but if you would prefer to start at the beginning then you can have a look at your Booked to Die review.
While you do learn a fair bit about Cliff in the first book, I think what we get here is still sufficient to form a complete picture of his character, and the reason is simple: he isn’t exactly the most complicated man out there. His goals and desires are simple, his methods straightforward, and he follows his own code of ethics through and through.
On the surface, this might make him seem like a bit of a boring protagonist, or the kind who could simply be described as a vehicle to take us through the story. However, he’s never short on interesting remarks to make about people and the world around him, and his straightforwardness ensures there aren’t many distractions on our way from any given point to any other.
We’re all running away. Some of us just don’t get very far.― John Dunning, The Bookman’s Wake
What’s more, his virtues are only further exalted by the rest of the characters surrounding him. They seem to be, for the most part, devoid of morals and ethics, lying to each other and themselves at every possible turn. In such a context, our Cliff becomes a welcome sight of no-nonsense stability and rationale.
The Search for a Relic
The investigation we’re presented with in The Bookman’s Wake has multiple layers to it, and I think it’s best to start with the more unique one: the search for a rare volume. As you might imagine, it’s an actual pursuit one can undertake in our own real world, and it seems to have a limitless wealth of stories, techniques, and details for us to learn about. Thankfully, John Dunning doesn’t dive into the matter on the level a specialized lecturer would (which would make for a very long and derailed read), but he does provide a rather revealing insight into this world.
There are some relatively lengthy descriptions which go into detail about the whole business of books, from finding and appraising to selling them. In my opinion, even if you don’t share my passion for this subject, these passages will still likely hold your attention for the interesting facts and tidbits they offer, the little pieces of knowledge we’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
The other layer of the investigation essentially revolves around trying to figure out who is orchestrating the chase after Eleanor and her rare volume. While I’m not going to claim it’s anything groundbreaking, it’s a very solid and airtight mystery in which I couldn’t find any holes, at least not any significant ones which jumped out at me from the pages.
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For the most part, the investigation is led in a rather straightforward manner, as our protagonist would dictate, and doesn’t deviate for any reason other than the afore-mentioned excursions in the realm of rare books. It’s also the kind where you, the reader, stand a real chance of deducing the culprit, which is always worth a few points in my book. Unless you’re a true veteran of the genre, it won’t be easy though.
The Final Verdict
The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning is a very solid, enjoyable and informative second entry in the Cliff Janeway Novels series. The protagonist is as enjoyable and easy to follow as he ever was, and the adventure he’s taken on combines some captivating mystery elements with the unique realm of rare editions.
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.