The Cunning of Dunning

I’ve just finished my first dip into John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway series with the opener Booked to Die. It’s a brisk, entertaining mystery with a sympathetic cop who doesn’t like the way his job is tapping into the dark side of his character.  He turns to work in the private sector, rubs elbows with well developed secondary characters, has a little romance with a potential femme fatale. It’s a great story, but one that might not support a great discussion.

In this case, however, the background framing device makes all the difference. The trade that lures tough guy Janeway away from policework is bookselling. He opens a shop, highlights many aspects of book collecting, notes the behaviors of bookish people, and opines on several authors. The first victim is a book scout, a ne’er-do-well type whom Janeway is convinced was killed because of some motive related to his occupation.

This frame makes this mystery prime material for a book group, either on its own, or as part of a meeting focused on bookshops and book collectors. It would pair well with nonfiction titles like the works of Nicholas Basbanes, Lewis Goldstone or Alberto Manguel, Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road or Larry McMurtry’s Books: a Memoir. Some groups might even have a book seller or an amateur collector among their numbers who would like to talk a bit about some of their own book adventures.

Dunning’s biography also has several hooks on which to hang discussion. The first is that Dunning has made himself an advocate for ADD, a condition that in his case wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood and made his early years difficult.

Reality also mirrors fiction in this case, as at one point he gave up writing to open his own bookshop, the Old Algonquin in East Denver. Dunning closed that shortly after starting the Janeway series, moving his bookselling practice online as many dealers have.

Finally, fans of the series may have wondered what happened to Dunning and his hero Janeway, who hasn’t been featured since the series’ 5th entry, 2006’s The Bookwoman’s Last Fling. Dunning was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that year, and its removal cost him an eye and has left him in a long recovery. Readers should wish him well as he works toward returning to writing.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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