The Bookwoman's Last Fling

Posted by Jason Venter (August 15, 2016)

When John Dunning published the first installment in his "Bookman" series after taking a break from a career which at that point already had showed promise, the new material generated a lot of excitement from critics. Then, after producing two volumes, Dunning took another break that lasted something like a decade before he resumed writing yet again. I don't know what happened during those lost years, but apparently they weren't good for Dunning's writing process, or his characters. I've now read each of the three newer books he wrote, and I just finished the last one in the series.

"The Bookwoman's Last Fling" was published in 2006, just over a decade ago, and in spite of some definite bright spots, I consider it the worst of the Dunning books that I've yet read. I haven't yet read "The Bookman's Wake," mind you, but reports from fans suggest that it may well prove to be the very best installment (I have it by my bed, waiting to be read next, so I'll know before long).

The story revolves once again around Cliff Janeway, the former police detective turned bookstore owner. As this newest and final volume begins, he is meeting with a stranger to discuss a possible appraisal and investigation. He has come to realize that although he loves the world of books, he misses the rush that comes from chasing after criminals. He likes being a "book detective," with emphasis on the "detective" part, even though his lady friend isn't a big fan of the danger that lifestyle somehow invites.

The potential client in this case doesn't get along well with Cliff at all, which is no surprise. Though the story's narrator portrays "Junior" as a controlling and rather terrible person, I personally find that Cliff himself is a bit of a jackass. Here, he's not quite as bad as he was in the previous book, but he still needs a serious attitude adjustment. It takes great restraint on his part to meet any new man without trying to establish a pecking order that places him at the top and any other males a few rungs beneath him. Still, he can't help but be intrigued by the potential case, because it involves a lot of very nice books and some of those volumes have gone missing.

It's amazing, actually, how good a job Dunning has done of tying fairly spectacular investigations to books, so that Janeway almost can't help but become involved. In this case, the investigation includes books, yes, but it focuses more obviously on horses. Dunning apparently worked jobs with horses during his use, so he has knowledge to draw on and he puts it to decent use. Janeway spends much of his investigation working in stables and talking to others who do the same, because the murder he is trying to solve--which took place 20 years ago--involved a woman who spent a lot of time around a husband who spent a lot of time around horses.

Anyway, the case has a number of twists along the way, and there were entire stretches that I found quite enjoyable and relaxing. Characters were introduced and then went on to become lifelike in my mind, and the pace was kept slow and relaxed except for a few instances that deviated from that norm and became fairly intense. The book made for good bedtime reading, almost right to the end.

Then that ending came along, and the identity of the killer was revealed and made very little sense. It's true that the character did have speaking lines in the book, but they were few and far between and for the most part that killer existed merely as a name. When suddenly it became clear who was responsible, only then did the clues really start mounting, and by then I of course didn't care. I'm a big believer in the mystery novel that at least gives the reader a good chance at guessing the killer's identity, if he or she is paying proper attention. "The Sign of the Book" also ended on a ridiculous note, but at least the clues were (sort of) spread throughout the book, so I didn't mind that so much. Here, the killer's identity came out of left field.

John Dunning has proven in the past that he is (or at least was) a capable writer. Cliff Janeway is, in spite of his irritating flaws, a character who I will happily read about when he is attached to a compelling story. In this instance, though, he's really not. There's too much good fiction out there to bother spending hours with this particular tale, unless you're someone like me who tries to read every volume in a particular series after starting it. I don't entirely regret reading "The Bookwoman's Last Fling," but I do regret that it didn't do considerably more to justify my time invested. At least now I can guess why Dunning dropped the series after finishing this particular volume.

Rating: 5/10

Jason Venter is a freelance blogger who spends most of his time writing about games and technology. Follow him on Twitter if you dare, at @jasonventer.

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