The following exchange between Cliff Janeway and Erin, his significant other, takes place near the end of "The Bookwoman's Last Fling." Erin speaks first:
"This is probably not something we want to do on the phone," she said. "But we do need to talk.... Oh, it's the same old stuff. We made some big and glorious plans for our life together in books. I still think it would be a great life, except for one thing. You don't really want it. It took me a while to understand that."
I didn't know what to say, probably because I was afraid she was right....
"What you really want is to be a cop again," she said.
"Well, you don't have to worry about that. It'll never happen."
"Oh, my dear, it has [italicized] happened. You're never going to be a bookman in the upper tier. You don't have it in you. You want to be a cop; you're still a cop at heart." [Pages 456-7, paperback edition]
Now if you reframe that passage slightly, it becomes a dialogue between John Dunning and his readers. Dunning, I think, doesn't really want to be the major figure in crime fiction that his first two books suggested he might be. He doesn't have it in him. He wants to be an ordinary, hard-boiled detective writer; he's still a hard-boiled detective writer at heart.
And when he says that'll never happen. We readers are bound to declare, "Oh, John, it has [italicized] happened."
Consider this book. Dunning obviously wanted to write about a hard-boiled guy snooping around a racetrack. On the other hand, he, his agent and his publisher, were fully aware that his paying fans wanted a story about books and bookmen. So Dunning wrote his racetrack story, but he perfunctorily bracketed it with the beginning and the end of a bookman story. The end bracket is particularly obvious. Cliff Janeway moves from the track world to the book world at the beginning of Chapter 31, page 446 of the paperback edition. (The story ends at page 507, after the apprehension of a villain. The arbitrary ending of the book almost equals "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" in generating disbelief, but without Agatha Christie's stunning skill in overcoming it.)
Dunning bends a dutiful knee towards things bookish by muttering about bibliomania. But what he is really talking about is collecting-mania. Books are a mere McGuffin in "The Bookwoman's, Etc." With only cosmetic changes, the mania could have involved paintings, Tiffany cigarette cases or any other collectible. If P.G. Wodehouse had written this book, he might have called it "The Creamer-Collector's Last Fling"--books out, silver cow creamers in.
I'm giving this book just two stars, not because it is bad, for it is all right in the sense that any run of the mill product is all right. No, I'm downgrading the rating because the book is only all right. Dunning once demonstrated that he could be something quite out of and above the herd. This book denies that potential and his promise as a true artist. It fails, not so much the readers as Dunning himself.
The Bookwoman's Last Fling is a most unexpected and rewarding addition to this outstanding series. Think of this book as John Dunning trying his hand successfully at writing like Dick Francis with a bibliophile twist.
As the book opens, Cliff Janeway is waiting at five a.m. in the parking lot of an all-night diner in Idaho for his new client, Mr. Willis, to arrive. Cliff is willing to be patient because he's already been paid $5,000 in advance. The client waits until six to show himself. And that's the smoothest part of that day.
Willis is the representative of Harold Ray Geiger's estate, an estate enriched by a large collection of valuable juvenile first editions that the late Mr. Geiger's wife, Candice, has assembled before she died a number of years before. Until the books are accounted for, the estate cannot be settled and several valuable race horses cannot be taken west to the track.
But Willis doesn't seem to be sure what he wants Janeway to do. Appraise the books? Figure out why so many virtually worthless books are sitting alongside extremely valuable ones? Locate books that may be missing? Or find out if someone killed Candice?
Feeling unsettled, Janeway arranges to visit Geiger's daughter, Sharon, who inherited the other half of the rare book collection after Candice died of her fatal allergy to peanuts. Sharon saves horses headed for the slaughterhouse, and Janeway finds her a much more sympathetic person than Willis. From that contact, Janeway finds himself caught up in an investigation into Candice's death. With Sharon's help, the investigation first takes him Golden Gate Fields, a race track just north of Oakland, California and then to Santa Anita in Southern California. In the process, Janeway gets to know Sharon's step-brothers and uncovers many family secrets.
But the investigation clearly alerts someone to be careful, and Janeway becomes a target for attacks. His instinct tells him that someone must have killed Candice. But who did it? Until late in the book, the suspects are few and the motives are unclear.
In writing this book, John Dunning draws deeply on his knowledge of rare books as well as his experience as a young man working with race horses. The book's back cover displays a photograph of Mr. Dunning as a young man during those days. The race course material rings very deeply true and is quite an unexpected pleasure.
The book contains an excellent development of Cliff Janeway's psychology. What does he want in life? By the end of book he and you'll know.
I also liked the way the book develops a picture of Candice from second-hand sources. It's a difficult way to establish a major character, but Mr. Dunning does it quite well.
Several other characters will interest you, but I suspect that Sharon will be your favorite.
Even if you haven't read any other books in this series, you could begin with this one and have a delightful read.
Yet another page-turning, intriguing crime story in the Bookman series by John Dunning. This one is quite different to those that have gone before, in that in this novel Cliff Janeway turns his hand to "walking hots" on a racetrack (cooling down hot horses that have just exercised or run a race). It's quite a lot like reading a Dick Francis, with a lot of information about the racetrack and racing, but there is still a book-related plot running through the book - this time mostly on the theme of collectable children's books.
Cliff Janeway, the Denver bookman, is as appealing as ever, and still can't give up his ex-cop past to concentrate solely on his bookstore. When a wealthy horse trainer H. R. Geiger dies, Janeway is asked to investigate his late wife's legacy of rare 1st edition children's books. Janeway soon discovers that a number of her books have been carefully stolen over time and replaced with cheaper imitation reprint editions. However, the waters soon muddy as other family members get involved and Janeway soons realises he might just be on the hunt for a killer too...
Brilliant! If you like books and you haven't come across this series before then start with the first one, 'The Sign of the Book'. The others are 'The Bookman's Promise', 'The Bookman's Wake', and 'Booked to Die'.
The Bookwoman's Last Fling is the 5th (and, so far, last) in John Dunning's Cliff Janeway series. Cliff travels to Idaho, ostensibly to appraise Candice Geiger's book collection, after the death of her thoroughbred trainer husband, H.R. Geiger, and to ascertain which books might be missing from the collection, and track them down. But he soon finds that the situation is a lot more complicated: he begins to look into Candice's death, some 20 years previous, and finds himself working at a racetrack and encountering a range of characters, some good, some bad, and some decidedly crazy. In this very cold case murder mystery, Dunning offers us bookish tidbits on bibliomania, book care and storage, children's books, book plates and private libraries. He also gives the reader lots of facts about horse rescue farms, horse training and racing. Perhaps a little slow in places, it is still filled with interesting characters, and the plot has a great twist at the end. It will be interesting to see if there are further books in this series.