BOOKED TO DIE was John Dunning’s debut novel in 1992. The author introduced Cliff Janeway, a Denver police officer turned book man who investigates the death of a book scout found dead in an alley. No witnesses. That should be fun. That’s the basic premise. To summarize my feelings: I found the mystery and the overall reading experience lackluster. Why did I even pick it up? I’ve wanted to read this book since it first came out and the book seem to be well received. I’m also getting rid of my paperbacks of which this is one so I thought I’d better go ahead and read it.
There’s a lot to like about this story if you enjoy collecting books. I wanted to get past all of that and focus on the mystery but that’s not how this novel is structured. Let’s start with the good first. The back drop using the book trade business was informative and fun and probably a novelty when it was published. I did some book collecting in college and this book brought back memories. Knowing what’s valuable and how to find it is a gift with a bit of luck thrown in. Book scouts have to know the rules of the game. You have to know what the book sells for and know how to differentiate a first edition from a book club edition because one of these is worthless. If you’re a book collector, I’m sure you’d get a kick out of knowing that a rare first edition copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems” can net close to a million. There are other mentions of amazing finds. I was all agog at the titles and prices quoted for the most wanted/rare items but then all good things must come to an end. While I enjoy reading about rare, HTF books, I didn’t expect this story to spend the majority of its time discussing it.
My criticisms are directed at the plotting. You have the book trading business part of the story while the mystery of the death of the book scout is lazily resolved. It didn’t work well for me hence my disapproval. The story just wasn’t moving nowhere fast. Speaking as a first edition enthusiast, I enjoyed those parts of the story that focused on the in’s and out’s of book trading (I could have done without all the name dropping though) and the thrill of scoring that rare first edition title on the cheap. The mystery part was the weakest part of the book to me. In fact, the mystery felt ancillary and that might well be purposely done so I will concede defeat. *waving white flag of surrender*
The author seems to have a passion for the good old days of book collecting/reading and that’s okay. I’m not someone who embraces change all that much either. While writing this review, I thought: I wonder what John Dunning would think of digital books? Would he agree with Jonathan Franzen? That we are not serious readers if we are not book sniffers? Often his characters lament about the trash that’s out there today (I agree but why do I get the feeling that we’d disagree on what is trash?) and the lack of appreciation and value of the printed word. Readers also have no taste:
“We live in a day when first editions by Stephen King outsell Mark Twain firsts ten to one, and at the same price. You explain it: I can’t. Maybe people today really do have more money than brains.”
The “people don’t read anymore” showed up. There’s no shortage of opinions on other crime novelists like Sue Grafton, for instance:
“Grafton is breezy and readable, entertaining but never challenging. Her father, C.W. Grafton, once wrote one of the cleverest, most gripping novels in literature. His book, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, is by most accounts a cornerstone, but if I want to sell it I have to do it on her popularity. I put one away for a more enlightened time.”
But this book was written in 1992 and while readable, I thought BOOKED TO DIE was breezy but not very challenging. Also, I didn’t really like Cliff Janeaway. He’s a literary snob with opinions on everything from literature to affirmative action. He wasn’t a very good cop either and that’s not just my opinion. I skimmed ahead just to find closure and didn’t find very many surprises. I don’t regret reading this book but a girl can cry a little. My expectations were half-way met so it wasn’t a total waste of time. I’ve read books written earlier than this one that has persevered well (like Ed McBain). I can’t really say the same about BOOKED TO DIE. If you’re looking for a mystery novel then look somewhere else is my take on it. My grade a very low C.
Curious to know if any of you are book collectors? What rare titles do you have sitting on your bookshelves? I gave up on the hobby since I read e-books now. What titles do I own that might be worth something? Mind you, I haven’t checked these but I do own a signed first edition of Michael Connelly’s THE CONCRETE BLONDE given to me by a friend. Also, I did find John Sandford’s RULES OF PREY, first edition hardcover in a resale shop for a dollar and I still have it. First rule of collecting hardcover first edition books: own what you like to read yourself. Take care.
Source: I bought it