Flipper and BookMoocher friend Triccie recommended John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway series to me when we were raiding the Book Sale warehouse last year, but it slipped my mind until I got a copy of Booked to Die that my mom brought home from the states, among the load of books she bought from the estate sales she went to.
I was finally able to read it (and a couple of other books) while I was getting my hair rebonded (the best reading time I’ve had in months!) a couple of weeks ago.
Booked to Die (Book #89 of 2009) is the first book in the Cliff Janeway “Bookman” mystery series by John Dunning. In this book, Cliff Janeway is a homicide detective investigating the murder of a bookscout in his home turf: Denver, Colorado, and the prime suspect is a longtime nemesis whose face he is itching to rearrange. He takes matters into his own hands, and it causes him to lose his badge.
Cliff Janeway is, in all aspects, one tough cookie, but he also happens to be a hard-core bibliophile, an avid collector of first-editions whose apartment could easily pass for an annex of the Denver Public Library.
Finding himself without a job, Cliff Janeway takes on a new career, and does something he has always dreamed of doing: putting up his own antiquarian bookshop: Twice Told Books.
Janeway appears to have settled into a more peaceful life, but as several rare (and outrageously expensive) books turn up, the body count in the local book trade rises, and Janeway’s cop instincts bring him on the trail of a murderer who will kill for a good book.
John Dunning had written a bunch of books before, but Booked to Die came out in 1992, his first novel in ten years. He had a rare book store in East Denver and counted himself lucky to get this book published, even with its conservative print run. To his surprise, the book flew off the shelves in a matter of days, and he couldn’t even get enough first editions of his own book! As of 2001, the book has had at least four hardcover and nineteen paperback editions, and Dunning went on to write five more Cliff Janeway books.
I would say that Book To Die is a bit too macho for my taste — brutal murders, rough-talking street folk, and a jaded action hero type who appears to have a new leading lady (or two) in every book — but my fascination towards the main character kept me from putting the book down. I find it so amusing that the no-nonsense and almost stereotypical Cliff Janeway would have so much passion for books — and first editions to boot — and this was what got me reading this series.
The whodunit is a bit grittier than I prefer, and the plot is satisfying although more convoluted than I would normally have the tolerance for, but the book lover in me got a high out of reading about the antiquarian book trade.
I’d blogged about antiquarian books before, and reading Booked to Die has only made the subject (and the actual deed of collecting them) even more interesting. I will take some extra grit any day if I can, as in this book, read about how a book rummaged for fifty cents can sell for a quarter of a million dollars, how Stephen King first editions can outsell Mark Twain first editions ten times over, and how it is logical to buy seventy-five copies of a random book you love in a single week because in fifteen years they’d be worth a hundred times more than what you paid for them (a dangerous idea for someone like me!).
There’s some really mouthwatering stuff: a signed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, made out to Mark Twain; an inscribed copy of Melville’s Moby Dick, made out to Nathaniel Hawthorne, which he in turn annotated by hand; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind signed by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh; and get this:
“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’ office for months. Then one night, Hemingway and Wolfe were both there and Perkins remembered the books and got them signed… 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 in A Farewell to Arms. They started trying to outdo each other. Wolfe’s inscription in Green Hills of Africa fills up the front end papers and ends up on the back board.”
And Janeway, who has wanted to be an antiquarian book dealer for most of his life, is actually good at it, and with upstanding principles, too:
“I bought with confidence and paid fair money. I knew what I wanted and nothing else qualified. I would buy no book that had a problem: no water stains, no ink underlined. I set a standard that still holds: if one page of the book is underlined, that is the same as underlining on every page; if the leather one one volume of a fine set is chipped, the whole set is flawed. I would do only books of permanent value, not the trendy, cotton-candy junk that’s so prevalent today.”
Sounds like an antiquarian dealer you would love to buy books from.
And then there are even more highs as Janeway learns even more about the business: how it is easier to sell a good book at a high price than a low price, how a first-edition of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi can fetch as much as $400, how he expanded his eye to book that he wouldn’t have gone for before ($1 medical books and $10 farming manuals that he sold at over $100), and I like how he comes to a new chapter in his life:
“Janeway’s Rule of the Discriminating Bookscout was born. Buy what you like, what you read. Trust your judgment. Have faith. The good guys, like Melville, might die and be forgotten with the rest, but they always come back.
I was practicing what Maugham has called the contemplative life. At night I read some of the books I’d found. I read things I had never imagined or heard of… I learned quickly and never forgot a book I had handled. This is how the game is played: you’ve got to be part businessman, part lucky, part clairvoyant. The guy with the best crystal ball makes the most money. The guy in the right place at the right time. The guy with the most energy, the best moves, the right karma.
… I was home at last, in the work I’d been born for.”
Cliff Janeway is the action hero of every book lover’s dreams!
I have the hardcover editions of the next three books waiting to be read –each of them acquired for P50, all at Book Sale bargain bins! I am hoping a copy of the 5th book, The Bookwoman’s Last Fling, also falls into my hands soon. I’m betting John Dunning gets me into collecting antiquarian books by the time I finish with that one.
My copy: mass market paperback (crying out for an upgrade)
My rating: 4/5 stars