By John Dunning



353pp/$25.00/Marchy 2005

The Sign of the Book
Cover by Pleasure/
Kevin Brainard

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The fourth Cliff Janeway novel by John Dunning is personal. Set after the events of The Bookman's Promise, Erin D'Angelo has stuck with Cliff and even invested her money in his used bookstore. While her legal career is still in overdrive, Cliff is gaining a reputation as a book detective and rin keeps urging him to think about going that way on a more permanent basis. When an old friend of Erin's is charged with murdering her husband, Erin sends Cliff out to western Colorado to sort through the evidence, which includes a sizable collection of books.

Cliff heads out and immediately tangles with the local sheriff's deputy, who doesn't like an outsider sticking his nose in the town's business, but also isn't particularly happy about anyone local questioning the sheriff's department. On a brighter note, Cliff discovers the local attorney, Parley McNamara, who is already working the case, is pretty astute, as well as friendly and the two get along well, both offering similar advice to Erin's friend, Laura Marshall, who is only to happy to reject their advice. Although Laura has confessed the the crime, Cliff and McNamara both have questions about whether she actually did it, wondering if her adopted son, Jerry, who is on the spectrum, might have actually pulled the trigger, a possibility that Laura completely denies. Eventually, they settle on trying to prove the possibility that a third party might have been the murderer.

As Cliff continues his investigations, and Erin eventually joins him in western Colorado, he comes across a trio of used book who may be connected to the murder as well as unscrupulous dealings as well as the realization that the local deputy completely botched the initial investigation and security of the crime scene. Concerns about Laura's children's welfare in the custody of their grandparents also raise some concerns. Through it all, Cliff continues his investigations, going as far afield as a book fair in California to attempt to figure out who killed, or even who may have killed, Bobby Marshall in order to drill holes in the prosecution's case.

The Sign of the Book feels less focused that the earlier novels in the series. Cliff feels a little more out of his element in a small town where law enforcement and the local judge are antagonistic toward him and his access to his putative client is severely limited, as is his access to her family and even the books that he is supposed to be examining. This more scattershot situation, however, allows Dunning to plant numerous red herrings throughout the book. As with the other books in the series, Dunning also focuses on aspects of the book trade, in this case the book fairs that spring up across the country as well as the desirability and issues that arise with autographed books.

On a personal level, Cliff's relationship with Erin which was so much a focus on The Bookman's Promise is continuing in The Sign of the Book, although the two are separated throughout most of the book, with Cliff exploring Paradise, Colorado and Erin trying cases in Denver. However, the case brings Cliff face-to-face with Erin's past in the form of Laura, who was Erin's closest friend until Laura had an affair with Erin's boyfriend, resulting in the end of their friendship and the start of Laura's marriage to him. Although Erin gave Cliff a brief background about their relationship, she leavesit up to Cliff to discover the details of their friendship.

The aspect of The Sign of the Book that deals with the book trade is as strong as ever and Dunning brings the novel to a very satisfactory conclusion, offering enough dead ends and twists to keep the reader guessing about what actually happened. Although Cliff spends most of the previous novels outside of his native Denver, he feels more like a fish out of water in the current novel than he did in the previous books, perhaps because Paradise is a small town rather than a city where he seems more at home.

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