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Tom Chaney R714: The Bookman as Detective

Of writers and their books. Review of The Cliff Janeway novels by author John Dunning. Review First printed 4 June 2006.
The next latest Tom Chaney column: Memory of Old Jack. Review of novel with Kentucky theme by Kentucky author Wendell Berry

By Tom Chaney

The bookman as detectiveJohn Dunning hit the world of mystery writers and booksellers with a double whammy back in the early nineties.

I first came across his work about the time we opened The Bookstore. His first two Cliff Janeway novels were an immediate hit at least in the world of collectors of rare books and those of us who wish we were collectors of rare books but more often live in the world of mass market corset-rippers and self-help books.

For many years Dunning owned the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver. He had published a couple of interesting mysteries and had hosted a radio show in Denver -- Old Time Radio.

Then came Booked to Die -- introducing his bookseller-detective Janeway. By the time his second Janeway title The Bookman's Wake came along in 1995, the first edition of Booked to Die was becoming a collectable item selling for hundreds of dollars.

Three more Janeway novels have followed, The Bookman's Promise, The Sign of the Book, and this year, 2006, The Bookwoman's Last Fling.

Janeway is a Denver police detective who has left the force where he chafed under authority. He falls back on his love for rare books and opens a rare book store in a slightly seedy area of Denver. But mystery and murder disturb the placid life of the bookseller -- all having to do with rare and collectible books.

I have just finished reading his latest -- The Bookwoman's Last Fling. It is up to the usual high Dunning standards which include a complicated plot; interesting, complex and obsessive characters; shady dealing in the book world; and a lot of information about the details of the bookman's trade.

Janeway is summoned to a thoroughbred horse operation in a remote section of Idaho. It seems that a wealthy horseman Harold Ray Geiger is dead. His valuable collection of rare books is slowly being heisted. The stolen titles are replaced with old, but cheaper editions. The disagreeably gruff trainer is staying on to manage the estate pending settlement. Janeway is engaged to attempt to discover just what is missing and "who dun-it."

Presently he meets Sharon Geiger, the daughter of the horseman by a second wife who lives on a nearby ranch and who is a veterinarian devoted to healing seemingly hopeless race horses. The second wife of the elder Geiger had died some two decades earlier under mysterious circumstances leaving her daughter a valuable collection of rare books. The daughter engages Janeway to pursue the missing books and attempt to unravel the mystery of her mother's death.

The Geiger family is also made up of three Geiger brothers -- sons of H. R.'s first wife. All of the sons are involved to some degree in the racing world -- two of them are pretty much certifiably crazy or desperate, and all of whom are suspect in the book theft until one is eliminated by being murdered.

Dunning has Janeway involve himself in the world of racing, working as a stable hand. This is enriched by Dunning's own early experience in the world of which he writes -- horses as well as books.As in all of the Janeway novels, The Bookwoman's Last Fling introduces the reader, especially should that reader be himself a bookseller, to the arcane and enticing world of rare books with talk of first editions, points, printings, and bindings. And only a bookseller-detective on stake out in a thrift shop would almost loose sight of his prey distracted by a first edition of John D. MacDonald's The Long Lavender Look on sale for a few pennies -- and worth hundreds of dollars.

Janeway solves the twenty-year-old murder of Sharon's mother and the mystery of the purloined rare books. At the same time he attempts to come to terms with his boredom in the static life of the bookseller.

In a previous Janeway novel, The Sign of the Book, Dunning has Janeway bemoan the advent of the internet in the rare book trade. He predicts that "in a few years, the romance would disappear from the book business." The computer will locate every copy of every rare book in existence. The thrill of the hunt will be gone.

Dunning's Old Algonquin is closed. He sells books only on line now -- as do many other booksellers in the trade. Books are becoming just another commodity to be traded on the world wide web.

But the search goes on. All of us dream of the big find. But like Janeway when we go back to buy The Long Lavender Look, it is gone.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney
The BOOKSTORETo see links to other Tom Chaney essays and book reviews, enter "Tom Chaney" in the search box

This story was posted on 2011-06-12 10:44:12
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