You might have read mystery novels with a focus on books and literature, but probably not anything quite like this one.
Posted by Jason Venter (July 31, 2016)
"Booked to Die" is the first entry in a series of novels that hasn't seen a lot of installments despite garnering a fair bit of critical acclaim. I couldn't resist giving it a shot, and I'm glad I did.
The novel's plot isn't really about any one thing. However, it primarily explores a couple of mysteries that may or may not be intertwined. The first mystery is the murder of a "book man," which is a nice term used to describe a decidedly poor person--at least in this case--who spends his time finding rare books and selling them to bookstores. The setting is Denver, where numerous book stores line a couple of streets. In that unlikely area, one of the more noteworthy of the local book men has just been found dead in an alleyway.
Cliff Janeway, the protagonist, is a police officer who is called to investigate the murder. He also happens to be a bit of a bibliophile himself, and even entertains dreams of retiring from the force and making a living selling books. His personal collection includes a number of first editions, mostly from authors such as Faulkner, and he speaks of books with obvious passion that he doesn't necessarily afford his day job.
Janeway's favorite suspect is a local thug made good, who moved to Denver from elsewhere and is known for his tendency to murder vagrants when he needs to let off a bit of steam. He hasn't ever been actually caught and prosecuted, even though the men in blue are convinced he's guilty as sin, so Janeway and his partner decide to investigate the fellow's homestead. What they find is disturbing, and things grow more disturbing still, until suddenly Janeway finds himself serving as protector to a young woman who is caught up in the middle of it all.
To say anything more would be to spoil the book's most interesting twists, which I feel are best if they come as a near-complete surprise. The novel covers a lot of ground, though. I'm safe saying that much. And there are some pretty big twists, particularly after around the halfway point. The desire to find out what would happen next eventually managed to keep me on the edge of my seat, after a rather slow opening.
Dunning, according to his biography, is a real-life bookshop owner, and his interest in books is apparent as he and his characters rattle off the names of famous authors and discuss what makes books valuable and what doesn't. A lot of that discussion gives the novel a dated feel, especially since the story predates the rise of the eReader (the library's copy is quite worn and had those old stamped cards that used to be popular before computer accounting overtook everything). There's a noticeable obsession with Stephen King, as well, mingled with disdain for his writing that got a little tiresome. The Janeway character spends a lot of time dismissing popular writers of the early 90s, and it starts to feel like the author must be interjecting his own opinions at such times, rather than presenting those of a carefully crafted character. I don't know if that's actually the case, mind you. That's just how it felt.
Fortunately for me, I happen to like books quite a lot (there's a shocker), and I didn't mind hearing someone else's perspective--fictional or otherwise--on classic writers. Also, there was an intriguing mystery at the heart of everything, and some of the characters definitely grew on me. I felt quite invested in everything by the time the last 50 pages hastily tied up the various loose ends and revealed the killer's identity.
Though the opening wasn't terrific, I wound up liking "Booked to Die" enough that I will probably read the next three installments. I don't imagine that the character or plot will appeal to a broad audience of mystery fans, however, and the novel is especially unlikely to appeal to those readers who like "clean" murders and investigations without nasty things like blood and violence. Janeway lives in a dangerous world (which some readers may not expect, given the focus on fine literature), populated by dangerous people. Dunning's writing doesn't shy away from any of that. If you're intrigued by such an approach, give this one a shot. You might very well like it...
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