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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Bookman's Wake: A Review

Take a detective turned book dealer, a rare volume of Poe's The Raven, and a young woman with the improbable name of Eleanor Rigby, and you have John Dunning's second Cliff Janeway mystery, The Bookman's Wake. However, like the now-classic first installment, Booked to Die, there is much more here than a typical formulaic mystery novel, and if you're not careful you might just learn something about rare books (as well as the long-lost art of book printing and binding) on the way to the book's climax.

The novel begins with Denver ex-cop turned book dealer Cliff Janeway on his way to Seattle to bring the young Eleanor Rigby (yes, like the Beatles song) back to New Mexico for trial; she is accused of stealing a rare 1969 Grayson Press edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Then the real trouble begins, because Janeway is won over by the girl's claim of innocence and sets out to protect her from an unknown assailant who has been killing people for more than 20 years in an attempt to get the book. Along the way we get more insider information from Dunning (himself a rare book dealer in Denver) on the book trade, including some amusing rants about inscriptions and remainder marks. As with Booked to Die, Dunning accomplishes this "reader education" without ever slowing down the pace of the story.

The Bookman's Wake solidifies John Dunning's place as the master of the serial bibliomystery. A bibliomystery is one in which a book, manuscript, author, or bookstore is central to the plot of the novel; there have been quite a number of them, from the 1920s up to the present day. And while Lev Grossman's The Codex and Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas are both outstanding examples of stand-alone bibliomysteries, only Dunning has been able to successfully convert the genre to series form. For those who love both books and book culture, this is a very satisfying combination.

Though the plot is not as tight and the ending a little less surprising than Booked to Die, all in all The Bookman's Wake is still a fine mystery novel. Janeway remains one of the most interesting main characters in mystery fiction this side of Robert B. Parker's Spenser. And as is true with all of John Dunning's books, the time spent reading them is always rewarding.

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