Booked to Die

This bookish crime novel (368 pages) was published in February of 2017 by Scribner. The book takes you to antiquarian bookshops. David read Booked to Die and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Booked to Die

A Cliff Janeway Novel

John Dunning

If you love crime novels and you love books — the smell, the sound, the acquisition, the very essence of books — then you’ll love the backlist, book-infused Cliff Janeway series. Let’s call it Bookshop Noir.

This novel, the first in the series, is set in the early 1990s and begins with an education on book scouts, the people who trowel through thrift stores and garage sales hunting for books to resell to book dealers. Unsurprisingly, it can be a fairly bleak and lonely life.

And then we hear from the narrator directly: This is the story of a dead man, how he got that way, and what happened to some other people because of his death. He was a gentle man, quiet, a human mystery. He had no relatives, no next of kin to notify. He had no close friends, but no enemies either… No one could think of a reason why anyone would kill Bobby. Who would murder a harmless man like that? I’ll tell you why. Then I’ll tell you who.

Are you even a crime novel fan if you’re not snared by a hook like that?

Our hero and narrator is Detective Cliff Janeway. He’s everything you might want in your 90s-era rumpled middle-aged cop. He’s a good man, and it’s easy to imagine him at the scene of the crime, gun under his coat, police lights swirling in the dark. He’s got a code, and it definitely gets in the way. He’s also got a temper, but he’s usually charming. You’re pretty sure he’s going to get played by someone, and he does.

This case — the murder of the aforementioned Bobby — takes Janeway deep into the world of antiquarian booksellers. So deep, in fact, that about a third of the way into the story, Janeway opens his own bookshop. That’s right: a bookshop-owning, rare-books-dealing detective.

As he follows the leads in his investigation, he runs into a slew of different booksellers with quirks, tics, and secrets, including Rita McKinely, the ice lady. She’s mysterious and beautiful, an appointment-only bookseller who doesn’t have time for idle shop chit-chat — a perfect foil for our daring hero.

Author John Dunning knows this world from the inside. He was a reporter for The Denver Post in the 1970s, working the crime beat, and he owned a bookstore. Until he retired, Dunning was a professional rare book trader. He said that he considered himself a book dealer who wrote and not the other way around. All of his experience in both worlds comes along for the ride in this story to excellent, world-weary effect.

This is a solid, satisfying mystery — and won the Nero Award the year it was published. The characters feel lived in, the settings are vivid, and the insider details about the rare book trade are irresistible.

Book dealers are like everyone else: they come in all sizes and shapes and have the same hangups that you see in a squad room or on an assembly line. If you picture a wizened academic with thick spectacles, forget it. Once they get in the business, they have little time to read. They are usually a cut or two smarter than the average Joe. I’ve never met a stupid book dealer who was able to make it pay. Some of them, though, are definitely crazy. There are a few horse’s asses, a few sow’s ears, but today’s bookseller is just as likely to be an ex-hippie ex-boozer ex-junkie streetfighter like Ruby Seals. — John Dunning

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