By John Dunning



352pp/$21.00/February 2004

The Bookman's Promise
Cover by Corsillo/Manzone

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The Bookman's Promise is the third novel to feature John Dunning's bookseller sleuth Cliff Janeway. Although published a decade after The Bookman's Wake, this novel takes place shortly after that book with the money Janeway made from the finder's fee burning a hole in his pocket. Deciding to splurge, he buys a mint copy of a first edition book by the adventurer Richard Burton, which leads him to a mystery surrounding Burton's life as well as a collection of possibly stolen books. With Janeway back in Denver, Dunning is also able to provide a little more insight into his life.

Although a murder occurs in The Bookman's Promise, it once again takes a backseat the the real mystery, or two, in this case. The first is whether Josephine Gallant really did own a massive collection of first edition books by Burton that were stolen from her decades earlier. The second is what Burton did during his time in the United States during a three month period during which nothing is known of his whereabouts. Janeway's promise to Josephine on her deathbed (natural, she was in her nineties) to try to find out what happened to her book collection, also leads him to look into Burton's lost weekend.

Along the way, Dunning introduces Judge Lee Huxley, one of Janeway's friends and a possible Supreme Court nominee, Erin d'Angelo, an attorney Huxley helped put through school, Pulitzer Prize winning author Hal Archer, and many more people. Leaving Denver behind, Janeway travels to Gallant's hometown of Baltimore where he meets Koko Bujak, a former librarian who was taking care of Gallant in her final years and had her own interest in Burton as well as the Treadway Brothers, shady rare book dealers who Gallant believed cheated her father out of the Burton books that her grandfather had collected.

The first two books in the series spent a considerable amount of time focusing on aspects of the used and rare book trade, whether in the form of book scouts or small presses. In The Bookman's Promise, Dunning has jettisoned that to a certain extent. The used book world is still a major milieu, with Huxley a collector, the Treadways' store, and Archer's exalted position in the book world. Dunning's exploration in this volume is a lengthy reconstruction of what his world's version of Richard Burton was doing during the missing period, reconstructed through stories Gallant told Koko as she remembered hearing from her grandfather and reading about in his books before they disappeared.

Behind the mystery of the missing books, however, violence is a constant factor in The Bookman's Promise. Although the murder near the book's beginning appears mostly ignored, Janeway makes an enemy of a Baltimore gangster, Dante, who demonstrates himself to be dangerous and holding a grudge. Janeway, as well as Bujak and d'Angelo, find that as long as they are looking into Burton's story, they are also in danger from Dante's mercurial temper, and the distance from Baltimore to Charleston, where their search leads them, may not be enough to disappear from his radar.

Dunning does not tie up all of his loose ends with a bow, but he provides the reader with solutions to most of the mysteries raised in the course of the novel. If the ended seems a little too contrived, it is because Dunning his many of the clues in plain sight for the reader, even if Janeway and his compatriots weren't able to see what they were and how they fit together. As with the earlier books, Dunning has provided a mystery that focuses on missing books and the people whose lives are uptruend because of them rather than just on trying to solve a murder.

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