Booked to Die (Review)

After reading John Dunning’s Booked to Die, I spent some time trying to find out who else had been nominated for a 1992 Edgar, only to find out I was wrong about the "else." It wasn’t even nominated in the "best first novel" category. This just seems like the sort of book that should have won. It’s a bit of a bummer to find out it wasn’t even on the shortlist. 1992 was either an unusually good year, or Dunning had a really crappy agent.

That’s not to say that it was perfect. Like many a first novel, it wears its author’s learning curve on its sleeve. Authors either overcome their flaw or (more commonly) learn how to work around them only with time. Dunning was still finding his sealegs.

Notwithstanding, this is one of the better mysteries I’ve read in a while.

What’s good about it.

Well, the plot, mostly. Right out of the gate Dunning’s already a master of coherence and misdirection. He knows just how much to say and just when to shut it about about important details. Mystery readers want a contradictory thing: an in-principle-solvable puzzle that they can’t figure out. You want to reach the end of a book and smack yourself on the forehead – because it all makes sense, and yet it surprised you. That’s a tough act to pull off and … Dunning doesn’t exactly pull it off (more on that later), but not for lack of plotting. No detail is misplaced, nothing is illogical, and the misdirection tricks that are invariably being pulled on you don’t feel unfair. It was a good magic show.

Also good – the irrelevancies. I don’t know why I get off on this stuff, but genre books – especially mysteries, for some reason – with long plot irrelevancies really appeal to me. The main story is about finding the murderer of a completely harmless book scout who seems like the unlikely target of a killing. In a nice bit of flair, Dunning opens his book by saying exactly that:

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. His cats would miss him.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.

But despite that first line, it’s at least as much a story about the main character, the poorly-named (if you want my two cents) Clifford Janeway – a thuggish cop who also really likes old books. For once, he’s not a washed-out alcoholic. He’s more Mike Hammer than Wallander – too confident and brutish to be really likeable. Over the course of our narrative, he transitions from police work into owning a rare books store, in part because the first and main suspect for most of the novel1 is a years-long obsession of Janeway’s. This is the case where Janeway’s determination to finally put the guy behind bars finally pushes him enough over the edge into lawlessness that he realizes he has to do something else with his life.

I didn’t much care for Janeway as a character. He’s not likeable, but Dunning seems to expect you to like him. His inner monologue isn’t fun to listen to. He’s no one you want to be. But I did find the subplot about obsession – and the musings on the fact that a lot of cops are only not criminals because wearing a badge gives them a constructive outlet for their sociopathic tendencies – really interesting. Also, I found the serial killer he’s obsessed with catching – Jackie Newton – convincingly, if sparingly, drawn. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about how sociopaths interact with society. More than anything, though, I appreciated the diversion. Mystery stories are formulaic by definition; you need a certain "something else" going on to make them readable.

What’s less good about it.

The characters. Jackie Newton works, and Clifford Janeway mostly works, but with all the incidental characters there are missteps. Mercifully, nobody steps out of character in the service of the plot – you can always buy everyone’s motives and actions. But everyone’s exaggerated in an amateurish way – they’re all cartoons – and they often say things that you just can’t really imagine that person in that situation saying. It’s obvious that Dunning has what it takes to write convincing characters, but that latent skill is very much unpolished in this outing. In getting the plot right, he didn’t make characters a priority, and for that reason this feels like it could’ve been a much better book than it was. In particular, there is one character who is introduced just to be killed off in a pedestrian shocker who is noticeable for how lazy – and ultimately manipulative – the characterization is. Dunning does essentially nothing but lard on sympthetic character traits just so you can be dismayed when she (hey – I said the characterization was lazy, right? Well, when you think "victim" don’t YOU come up with a "she?") gets killed in what amounts to crossfire. And speaking of that killing, I’ve just remembered something that makes me take back what I just said about nothing in the characters’ actions being overly plot-convenient. Actually, there is at least one such example – a character who failes to tell Janeway something important – a failure that leads to this girl getting killed – that’s really implausible in retrospect.

I just want to emphasize that "not perfect" and "needs work" don’t mean "not good." For what it does well, this book is almost shockingly good. Dunning’s no Nesser2, but his books belong on the same shelf.

Overall Rating B+

  1. Not to the reader, of course. There’s mercifully no attempt to try to con the reader into thinking this guy did it; we realize right out of the gate that Janeway is barking up the wrong tree. He’s a MacGuffin more than anything.

  2. Håkan Nesser, my current favorite mystery writer.

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