Booked to Die by John Dunning

Booked to Die by John Dunning

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in mass market), 321 pages, 1992

Rating: 8/10

Reason for Reading: A recommendation over at BookCrazy.

Synopsis: Cliff Janeway is a tough-guy cop with an unexpected passion for collectible books. When a bookscout, Bobby Westfall, is found murdered, Janeway is positive it was the rich but violent Jackie Newton. But what could a thug have in common with book lovers? Janeway keeps digging for clues by himself, as the rest of the police force doesn’t see pursuing a murderer that targets drifters as a priority. Slowly, he is uncovering some sordid secrets in the world of book collecting…

Why you should read this book: If you’d like to combine a love of literary novels with a passion for mystery books, Booked to Die is worth hunting down. It’s full of fun facts about collecting rare books and how valuable they can be – and hey, since most of us will never own a first edition book by William Faulkner, we can at least live vicariously through Dunning’s characters. Janeway’s character is smart (if somewhat lax with his use of grammar), but extremely volatile when it comes to Jackie Newton, which leads to some unexpected plot twists. More of a ‘detective-doing-the-legwork’ type of story than the forensics-based books that have become so popular in recent years, so a good pick if you want the more classic detective-based style of mystery novels.

Why you should avoid this book: This is one to stay away from if you detest mystery books that end with the cornered killer confessing and explaining his or her wily plan – it feels like a bit of a cop-out to condense the explanation at the end of the book. Despite the modern feel of the novel, Janeway will sometimes drift into sexist and misguided notions such as ‘blame the woman for being too afraid of her rapist to prosecute’ thinking.

Opening paragraph:

Bobby the bookscout was killed at midnight on June 13, 1986. This was the first strange fact, leading to the question, What was he doing out that late at night? To Bobby, midnight was the witching hour and Friday the thirteenth was a day to be spent in bed. He was found in an alley under one of those pulldown iron ladders that give access to a fire escape – another odd thing. In life, Bobby would never walk under a ladder, so it would seem ironic to some people in the Denver book trade when they heard in the morning that he had died there.

Fabulous quotes:

This is all by way of saying that I’d’ve been delighted to take on Jackie Newton some dark night. He had me by four inches in height, at least that much in reach, and thirty pounds that would never be called excess baggage. On paper he should whip my ass. But that’s what they said about Jess Willard when he ran into another of my old heros, Jack Dempsey. Dempsey put that lardbucket flat on the floor, and when it was over Willard’s corner was screaming about plaster of paris and everything but the Rock of Gibraltar being in Dempsey’s gloves. It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, is it? And I had a feeling that, under all that bullshit, Jackie Newton didn’t have much heart.

‘Here’s another thing,’ Lambert said. ‘You remember that old rumor about Hemingway and Wolfe signing each other’s books?’
It was a rumor I had never heard, so I asked him to fill me in.
‘Sometime in the thirties, a woman in Indiana was supposed to have sent a package of Hemingway and Wolfe books to Max Perkins, begging for signatures. The books sat around in Perkins’s office for months. Then one night Hemingway and Wolfe were both there and Perkins remembered the books and got them signed. But both of them were three sheets to the wind and Hemingway thought it would be a great joke if they signed all the wrong books. He sat down and wrote a long drunken inscription in Look Homeward, Angel, and signed Wolfe’s name. Wolfe did the same with A Farewell to Arms. They started trying to outdo each other. Wolfe’s inscription in Green Hills of Africa fills up the front endpapers and ends up on the back board.’
‘Thomas Wolfe never could write a short sentence if a long one would do just as well,’ Goddard said sourly.
‘But the point is,’ Lambert said unnecesarily, for by then even I knew what the point waas, ‘McKinley has all those books, with the handwriting authenticated beyond any question.’

Also recommended: Chopping Spree by Diane Mott Davidson; The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown; Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt; The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith.

Also by this author: The Bookwoman’s Last Fling; Bookman’s Wake; The Bookman’s Promise; The Sign of the Book; Two O’Clock, Eastern War Time; On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio; Looking for Ginger North; Deadline; The Holland Suggestions.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Dunning went from dropping out of high school in the 1950s (due to undiagnosed ADD) to teaching writing and journalism at the University of Denver and Metropolitan State College.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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