Inspiring Older Readers
The Bookman’s Promise by John Dunning
Published in 2004, this is the third instalment in the Cliff Janeway series of novels in which a Denver cop turned second-hand book dealer finds himself embroiled in mysteries somewhat more taxing than those normally associated with the book trade.
For reasons I don’t really understand, this particular adventure seemed to garner almost universal praise when it was reviewed on publication. For me it is by some distance the weakest of series that I've read so far – its plot is thin, its premise even more unlikely than what had gone before and its narrative arc less than satisfying. Having said that, it’s not devoid of things to like and Dunning’s commitment to creating literate detective fiction is nothing short of admirable.
The problems really started for me with the decision to base the book around the collectible works of the explorer-adventurer, Richard Burton. Collectible as his books are, neither the books or the writer really set my juices flowing when it comes to getting excited by rare signed or inscribed copies of his work or to the supposed mystery of his otherwise unrecorded time in America.
The book starts promisingly enough with Janeway deciding to spend a windfall on a special book – an almost mint copy of a work by Burton which he has inscribed to a mystery friend. When he gets an unexpected visit from a frail, partially bind pensioner, Josephine Gallant, who claims the book has been ‘stolen’ from her, the mystery starts to unravel. Mrs Gallant doesn’t stick around too long but its long enough for Janeway to discover that there are more books worth potentially even more money caught up in this case and that there may well be some genuine substance to the old woman’s claims.
The cop in Janeway won’t lie down and he’s soon off on a quest to keep his promise to solve the ‘theft’. Along the way, inevitably, people get hurt and some get killed. At the centre of all this mayhem is an exceptionally nasty piece of work known as Dante who is in league with the crooked half of the bookselling duo known as the Treadwells. Dunning follows the remorseless logic of the story he has set in train but in my view it’s a runaway truck with failing brakes that takes us into territory where its increasingly hard to suspend disbelief. The violence, treachery and mayhem continues to grow at an alarming pace and ex-cop Janeway comes on as his very own Dirty Harry figure.
There’s a will-they-wont-they romance, a hippy-dippy hypnotherapist and an unlovable reptilian novelist with a grudge also washing around in the mix. It should all have added up to something more than the sum of its whole – but somehow it just doesn’t.
I wanted to love the book as much as I loved the first couple – I need books like this as my downtime reading - but I just found myself unable to go with this. It felt self-consciously constructed and unnecessarily padded with a whole chapter given over to the ‘transcription’ of original documents relating to Burton and his American connections.
There are another two Janeway novels that follow this one – I’m hoping he’s back on form for those.