The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning

The Bookman’s Wake is the second book in a detective series starring Cliff Janeway. Janeway is a former cop who gave up police work to become a rare book seller. In this story he is approached by a former colleague, another ex-cop who has become a private detective. Janeway neither likes nor trusts the man, but is tempted by his offer—five thousand dollars to arrest a woman who has jumped bail, and bring her back to Denver for trial. Her picture looks nice, the money sounds good, and her case is interesting. She is accused of stealing (twice) a rare book printed by a legendary small publisher named Darryl Grayson, whose books are famous both for being almost perfect and extremely hard to find.

Things go badly very quickly. Janeway approaches her under an assumed identity (her name is—seriously—Eleanor Rigby), and finds they have much in common. She’s a “book scout.” She makes a precarious living prowling used bookstores and thrift shops for underpriced books she can sell to dealers at a profit. Though very young, she can teach Janeway some things about books. He meets her family, printers themselves (her father worked for the famous Grayson) and likes them too. She makes a sexual advance, but he turns her down, partly because of his deception and partly because of her age.

About the time he decides he can’t bear to turn her over to the police, Eleanor gets arrested anyway. Janeway ends up escorting her as originally planned, but then she is kidnapped by a mysterious thug with an agenda of his own. Janeway must pick his way through the intricate maze of an old mystery in order to rescue her.

I liked Dunning’s writing. He uses words with real skill, and his characters are interesting and mostly well drawn. His knowledge of the book trade makes reading his novel educational in itself.

I had a problem with his hero though. Cliff Janeway is supposed to be both a cerebral book lover and a very tough guy. The combination isn’t impossible or even unlikely, but Dunning didn’t make it work for me here. The contrast between Janeway’s normal narration and the action sequences where he becomes deadly and violent struck me as too extreme. It was as if there were two characters, with no connection between them. I’d have liked to have seen some transition, some reflection of each facet in the other. But perhaps I’m just operating from a preconception about book people.

Also, except for the final showdown, I thought Janeway was just too good in a fight. In particular, he comes up against one criminal supposed to be a shadowy, dangerous, deadly killer, but he handles him with ease. It would have increased plot tension and improved believability if Dunning had made the struggle a little harder.

I was also irritated by Dunning’s politics. He’s entitled to them, of course, and I’d defend to the death his right to work them into his novels, but that doesn’t mean I have to buy his books. Conservatives, here, are uniformly either stupid or venal, all television evangelists are evil con men, and any dissent from environmental causes is a sign of moral turpitude.

I was also amazed by one bad word choice that astonished me in a book so well-written. This is the offending sentence:

“But the deal had to be handled with tenterhooks. The woman was extremely nervous”

A guy who knows words as well as Dunning ought to be aware that tenterhooks are not instruments of delicate manipulation. Tenterhooks were tools in the old weaving industry. Lengths of cloth were hung from them for stretching. “Being on tenterhooks” means to be in a state of tension, not caution.

The Bookman’s Wake has much to recommend it, but I don’t think I’ll be patronizing that particular shop again.

4 thoughts on “The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning”

  1. Lars; I share a lot of your views on Dunning. I read (listened) to the third? novel ‘A bookman’s promise.’ As you say; the fight scenes are not believable. I did find it interesting for the background about (the fascinating) Richard Burton. It’s far better than most detective novels of our day (most of which are ruined by excessive violence and libertine sexual content) but is sadly humanist in its worldview.

  2. I’m still mowing through Klavan thanks to you, Lars. But I’ve taken a detour to a dusty, falling apart copy of DUNE, by Frank Herbert. It is paying dividends.

  3. I’ve decided this bookseller/cop is a brilliant device to increase the probability that booksellers will order the book and stock it on their shelves.

    Time to put together your librarian hero, Lars.

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