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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Book Nine

Our ninth novel this year is The Bookman's Promise, the third in a series by John Dunning. In each novel Mr. Dunning has seemed to move further from the obvious crime and detection plot. If a series had been planned from the start, perhaps part of the plan was to offer a pretty straightforward mystery with the first novel, drawing in as many readers as possible, and then pulling them along into new territories, stretching the genre. In this third novel there isn't even an obvious crime until page 117, a full quarter of the way through the book, which is late for a mystery.

In the opening pages, Janeway is giving an interview that sets the stage for the rest of the story. The last paragraph is a fine summation (one can just hear the voice-over):
"So we have a mystery here as well as a valuable book," and it all began then. Its roots went back to another time, when Richard Francis Burton met his greatest admirer and then set off on a secret journey, deep into the troubled American South. Because of that trip a friend of mine died. An old woman found peace, a good man lost everything, and I rediscovered myself on my continuing journey across the timeless, infinite world of books.

The bookman's promise is to a dying woman: to find her books, which were schemed or stolen from her. Again we are treated to lots of information about, and scenes from, the book world. There is less a sense of a crime being solved than of a puzzle being pieced together. One thing we particularly enjoy in Mr. Dunning's writing is the way he regularly presents unpindownable feelings in his protagonist. These have the strong sense of intuition, every good cop's best friend, yet for Janeway his feelings or hunches or suspicions just as often lead nowhere. There is a fine flavor of veracity to this, rather than the traditional detectives who always have a sudden, correct hunch that Mr. Mustard did it with Miss Marple in the Conservatory.

Of course Janeway is on to a mystery that involves a stunning woman, this one whose appearance he likens to a Gibson girl. And why not? Mr. Dunning's Janeway mysteries are a plain paper wrapper short of biblioporn. At every turn Janeway is encountering the most ravishing editions of the most desirable books. Every touch is sensual ecstacy, and the urge to possess is primal. Every book is fine, crisp, and high-end, with lots of margin. "You get hot and the books won't stop coming." He experiences a euphoria that is like a drug high. And when all his acquisitions are made, Janeway says, "I want to fondle my stuff." In the second novel, he has a five-way encounter with four hot Ayn Rands that leaves him lost in rapture. He will always choose a book over a girl, but the girls are usually fascinated by the world of books and want to learn everything he wants to teach them. We have even read between the lines that Janeway's next adventure is going to be titled The Bookman's Wet Dream.

There is one thing that is unsettling about the protagonist, and we have touched on it previously: Janeway has a dark side. In the two previous novels, he has spent time skirting the law, and sometimes stepping outside its bounds, in his pursuit of the truth or the killer or the missing book. This time he turns brutally vengeful, though not without reason. Mr. Dunning makes sure to give his protagonist the proper cause, along with the doubts of conscience that enable him to remain sympathetic. We can accept this, and even recognize that it is part of what makes Janeway a well-rounded, complex character, unlike the bad guy in this book who is nothing more than a goon. The incongruity comes at the end, when Janeway solves the puzzle and sees the entire thing in living black and white. Janeway's world is painted with a full pallette of grays--he gives himself plenty of wiggle room to do things that are just a little wrong because it's all for what he considers good; when someone else asks him to grant them the same wiggle room, just a little gray sympathy, Janeway can do nothing but wish he could.

This was another entertaining novel, and as strong as the two previous ones. On top of the mystery there is a good deal of history--setting aside the eroticism of the books, we might call this a mystorical novel. The next installment is on the pile, and we will read on.

This we give three (out of five) pipefuls.

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