Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: BOOKED TO DIE (1992) by John Dunning

Friday's Forgotten Books is a weekly meme usually hosted by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog. But Patti is off today, so George Kelly has stepped in to do hosting honors at his blog.

My entry for today is BOOKED TO DIE, the first book in the wonderful Cliff Janeway series, written by John Dunning. Author Dunning was a bookstore owner and book dealer, also a radio historian and radio show host. He and his family live in Denver.

The Janeway series also takes place in and around Denver. In this first book, Cliff Janeway is still a cop who also happens (to the disparagement of most) to collect books - rare books. He is a part-time dealer.

My apartment looked like an adjunct to the Denver Public Library. There were wall-to-wall books in every room. Carol had never asked the Big Dumb Question that people ask when they come into a place like this: Jeez, d'ya read all these? She browsed, fascinated. The books have a loose logic to their shelving: mysteries in the bedroom; novels out here; art books, notably by the Wyeths, on the far wall. There's no discrimination - they are all first editions - and when people try to go highbrow on me, I love reminding them that my as-new copy of Raymond Chandler's LADY IN THE LAKE is worth a cool $1,000 today, more than a bale of books by most of the critically acclaimed and already forgotten so-called masters of the art and beauty school. There's nothing wrong with writing detective stories if you do it well enough.

I've been collecting books for a long time. Once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect.

Janeway and his department are currently working on solving a string of murders - the victims all appear to be drifters, street people. This time around, the victim happens to be someone Cliff knows. Bobby was a book scout, a kind of traveler in the shadows of the book business. The sort of guy who occasionally stumbled over a good deal - an overlooked and possibly 'rare' book - which he picked up for a few dollars (usually at Goodwill and places of that sort), then sold to dealers for a few dollars more. Not a great way to make a living, but better than pan-handling. Bobby was a good guy. Cliff wants to know why someone would harm a nobody like Bobby.

The police actually have a suspect - well, Janeway does - but are having trouble finding the necessary proof. In the meantime the dead keep turning up. Janeway is sure the killer is Jackie Newton, a rich wheeler and dealer in Denver real estate circles; a strange guy with an ugly history. It is this compulsion to prove Jackie Newton guilty that will be Janeway's undoing.
He suspects that this case will upend his career and his life in unforeseen ways, but he goes full speed ahead anyway.

In the meantime, while reading about these murders and the twists and turns of an evolving, complex case, you will, as a cool sideline, learn about book collecting. You will meet all sorts of eccentrics (some more sinister than others) - the norm in the book collecting trade. People collect for all sorts of reasons and you just never know when and where you're going to find an Aladdin's Cave of treasure.

Here, Janeway describes a cache of books he's come across as part of his current murder case - you can feel the love and awe and avarice the character feels:

Everything Julian Lambert had said about her books was true, except that even then you weren't prepared for them. You just don't see that many sensational books in one place. It was all literature, published since the mid-1800s, and it was all letter-perfect. You need a bookman's eye to appreciate what a perfect copy of a fifty-year-old book looks like. It does not look like a new book - it looks so wonderfully like an old book that's never been touched. Never been touched by human hands - that's the feeling her books gave you. There were things in that room that I knew I hadn't seen in that condition in half a century. She had a shelf of Jack Londons in crisp dust jackets from before 1910. She a had a little poetry piece that had ushered Ernest Hemingway into the book world. She had Mark Twain's copy of KIM, signed by Kipling when he and and Clemens had met, in 1907. There were so many signed books, variants, unique pieces, books with unusual associations, books from author's personal libraries, letters, and manuscripts that mere first editions seemed unexciting and trite.

She had factory-fresh copies of LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, and Steinbeck's first, awful, but extremely scarce novel, CUP OF GOLD. After a while this becomes meaningless, it degenerates into a simple list of the great, the rare, the wonderful. When I came upon Hawthorne's copy of MOBY DICK, inscribed by Melville in great friendship and lavishly annotated by Hawthorne's hand, I heard a deep long sigh fill the room. I realized a moment later that it had been my own voice.

Author Dunning knows all the 'ins-and-outs' of book collecting and dealing and gladly shares his knowledge with you through the enigmatic, hard-edged voice of his hero. Cliff Janeway is an odd duck. A weird combo of the rough and tough and the cerebral. He is a pragmatic guy used to being on the look out for the lost 'classic,' the undiscovered rarity. He notices things. This talent serves him well as a cop and a collector.

There aren't many books in the Cliff Janeway series and I do recommend reading what there is from the very beginning. Link here to find the full list of Cliff Janeway books and other titles by John Dunning.

A sidenote: Almost from the first moment of publication, the first/first of BOOKED TO DIE increased enormously in value - especially a signed copy. Ironically, John Dunning's book joined the titles mentioned in the story as a valued collector's item. The price has fluctuated wildly over the years, but the book is still worth good money far as I know. My own copy is a hardcover but worthless, since it is a book club edition. Find out why these editions are considered so by reading BOOKED TO DIE.


  1. I have all of Dunning's books. BOOKED TO DIE might be his best book.

  2. I've read them all as well, George. Mostly in paperback. Though I do have THE BOOKMAN'S WAKE in hardcover. Unfortunately it has no collecting value. But it has reading value for me, of course. :) I liked the first three books best. A terrific series.

  3. I am almost certain I have read and enjoyed this one in Danish some years ago - so not quite forgotten. I think it is the only one that has been translated, though.

  4. A terrific book, Dorte. At the time, I can't remember any other mystery books with this sort of protagonist. Plus I loved learning about the book biz. :)

  5. Are book clucb editions not valuable because they omit some passages or because they use inferior paper?
    I also know Readers Digest books are the scourge of libraries and totally worthless in re-sale, but I loved them when I was a child and they helped introduce me to many classics.

  6. Hi Pat: Yes, one of several reasons that Book Club editions have no resale value is the often inferior paper. AND the sizing, the books are usually smaller than the originals. There are a couple of other reasons but I can't remember right now. All I know is, for a collector, book club editions are the kiss of death. HA!

    Oh, Reader's Digest books. Awful things. But they did, as you say, often introduce kids - way back when - to the classics.

  7. My husband just picked up a John Dunning that my parents passed along to us. Sounds like an author I'm going to have to pick up with the hubs is done with the book.

  8. A terrific writer, Lisa. He also wrote some stand-alone books too. I wonder which one you have?


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