by Marshall L. Moseley
There's an old Saturday Night Live sketch, a satire of a television commercial, that features a multi-purpose white foam that looks like shaving cream. After all these years, I can still hear the refrain: "It's a floor wax AND a dessert topping!"
When I first heard about the plot of Booked to Die, by John Dunning, I was a bit skeptical. It features Cliff Janeway, cop, ex-boxer, and all-around tough guy, who happens to be a very good antiquarian book collector, or "bookman" as they call themselves. Wow, I thought to myself. He's a floor wax AND a dessert topping.
I just didn't buy it. It seemed like a forced joining of two very different disciplines, sort of a book lover's fantasy dream detective--someone who can wipe up the sidewalk with whoever crosses him and quote Faust while he does it. Ridiculous. Even though the buzz on the book was good, I stayed away from it purely on the basis of my first reaction to it.
Stupid me. I deprived myself of one of the best detective novels in years because of a generalization I made in a moment of pure snobbery.
This book is the forced joining of two disciplines, and Janeway is a tough walk-it-like-he-talks-it cop who is nevertheless very knowledgeable about all kinds of books. And it works. Gloriously and completely.
Author John Dunning gives us a crackerjack whodunit, a fully-realized three-dimensional character in Janeway, and a good long look into the fascinating business of buying, collecting, and selling books.
The plot starts with the murder of a two-bit bookscout. (A bookscout is someone who frequents used book stores, estate sales and garage sales, hoping to find valuable books.)
Janeway investigates, doggedly and dispassionately at first, but another case, about which he is anything but dispassionate, takes his attention away. Soon his career is on the line. Then the two cases come together unexpectedly, and Janeway is tested in ways the reader could not have foreseen.
Add to the mix a beautiful, mysterious woman who lives on a mountain top, an entire library of missing first editions, a cat-and-mouse game with a known psychopath, and you are just beginning to delve into the plot of Booked to Die.
But with all its action, with all its twists and turns, the true beauty of this book lies not in the plot elements, but in Janeway's love of the printed word. Through Janeway, author Dunning points out that most people, even those who read, have no idea of the history and tradition of the book trade. They walk through book stores and give no thought to the beauty that surrounds them, both in the craft of bookmaking and the essentially honorable and uplifting experience of literature.
If you like books and you like mysteries, find this book. Seek it out. Special order it if you have to. It was written just for you.
Marshall Moseley is a Woodinville resident and an avid mystery reader. He has fifteen years' experience as a professional writer, and is the author of two computer- and software-oriented books. He currently works for Microsoft Corporation as a product manager.
"I think mysteries have the best characterization in genre literature," he said. "All the other genres--SF, horror, romance--give second place to characterization and first place to narrative pace. Not so with mysteries. Mysteries don't work unless you believe in the characters, in what they're doing and why. Phillip Marlowe, Kinsey Millhone, Sid Halley--to me they are almost real, and that's a testament to the craft and art of their creators. So I read mysteries and I enjoy telling people about them."