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Book Reviews and Recommendations
Spotlight on: John Dunning
John Dunning, Booked to Die
John Dunning, The Bookman's Wake
There is a lot of talk among bibliophiles about these books and their subject matter. Rare books and their values are instrumental in their plots. What they leave out, however, is that these are two excellent mysteries.
In Booked to Die, Cliff Janeway is a cop with a problem. He knows who is pulling a string of derelict murders--his old nemesis Jackie Newton--but he can't pin the crimes on him. Up comes a new victim, a local bookscout that Janeway recognized from the street, and Janeway thinks he has Newton cold--except that Newton has an alibi in one Barbara Crowell, who was with him from 3:00 the previous afternoon.
In The Bookman's Wake, the focus is a long-thought-lost special printing of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, which Janeway is hired to find. Along the way he meets a woman named Eleanor Rigby and things just get more confusing from there.
To say much more would give too much away. But these are definitely two mysteries worth reading. All the information on the book world is simply a bonus for bibliophiles.
Janeway is a very interesting character--a cop, then a detective, and a book lover. The author also owned a book shop for ten years and still runs a first-edition-only business from his home.
I recommend these books to people interested in books as a commodity, but also to anyone who likes a good mystery. For once (well, twice), I was satisfied with an ending.
John Dunning, The Bookman's Promise
I have been a fan of John Dunning's writing since I first read the initial Cliff Janeway bibliomystery, Booked to Die. This was followed by The Bookman's Wake and the old-time radio novel Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, which I consider to be his masterpiece.
Now Janeway has returned after about ten years in The Bookman's Promise, which is set not long after the events of The Bookman's Wake in 1987. Most books on books have a central figure (Wake focussed on Edgar Allan Poe, A Pound of Paper by John Baxter was about Graham Greene), and The Bookman's Promise focuses on the work and life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Unfortunately, Dunning focuses so much on Burton that he forgot to write a gripping mystery. I can't say I wasn't enthralled by every page, but to nowhere near the extent of the previous two Janeway novels, which had me reading them at every free moment. This one, on the other hand, was an effort to complete and a real disappointment.
However, it did pique my curiosity about Burton and his works. He seems to have led a fascinating life, and, while I'm not sure to believe some of the plot points surrounding his life as presented in The Bookman's Promise, I'm sure there is a lot more to research. Travelling and writing: that's the life. Also, while I was disappointed in the story, the characters seemed very real (I think Dunning may be using Janeway as a doppelganger for his hidden desires--which makes him sometimes unlikeable); although it was difficult early on to differentiate the two female leads--but that could just be me.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
John Dunning, Deadline
Deadline is a solid thriller featuring Dalton Walker, a prize-winning reporter who gets a job with a local newspaper. His first assignment is to interview one of the Rockettes from Radio City Music Hall, Diana Yoder. She comes from an Amish background and the editor thinks her story would be a great human-interest piece--what with all the inherent conflict. What he finds out is the reason he was assigned this is that she does not give interviews. The editor has made her reporter-shy. Meanwhile, and eight-year-old girl has died in a fire. The police wait for her family to come forward to claim her body--but they never do.
Others have said that this is not up to the author's later works (e.g., Booked to Die; Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime), and this is true. But John Dunning always has a lot to offer. This is not a pedestrian novel.
Unlike most mysteries/thrillers, but like other Dunning novels, the focus is more on characterization and detail than on any unanswered questions. This makes for a slower read, but a nonetheless engrossing one. When Dunning writes about something you can be sure he has researched it. The evocation of Amish life in this book is like none I've read since James Michener's The Novel. There is plenty to enjoy in Deadline. Dalton Walker is a character I would like to revisit.
John Dunning, Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime
I was introduced to John Dunning through the first book of Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone's charming series about book collecting: Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World. Dunning's bibliomysteries (reviewed elsewhere on this page) has received great acclaim and awards (and are quite good reads, in addition).
But he also wrote a terrific novel about the days of World War II radio. It is a passion of mine, and anyone who shares that passion will definitely enjoy Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime. Besides being well-known as a book expert, Dunning is also the author of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. This wealth of knowledge informs his fiction to an extent not achieved before.
Plus, in addition to involving radio, it even reads like radio. Dunning has written the first (to my knowledge) "radio novel." It is fast-paced, well-plotted, and full of drama. Even at 509 pages, it is what I would call a quick read. Plus it is full of characters that feel like real human beings; people you care about and care what happens to them.
The imaginative plot involves kidnapping, mistaken identity, murder, suicide, music, writing, and Nazis and is full of knowing references to radio of the 1940's. Dunning is a terrific craftsman and obviously knows his subject from the inside out. The scenes at the radio station are particularly evocative. To use a phrase (and a title) from the period: You Are There. Even readers with no particular interest in radio should enjoy it, as well. Any fans of solid thrillers will find plenty to like here and there is nothing technical that is not explained.
Dunning has written plenty of good books, but Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime is my favorite and I recommend it unreservedly.
John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio
This review is going to be formatted differently than usual. Right off, I'm just going to start by saying that every old-time radio fan reading this needs to just stop reading right now and buy a copy of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. John Dunning's definitive encyclopedia of the golden age (and then some) of radio needs to be on the shelf of anyone who dares to call himself a fan.
Building from his earlier work, Tune in Yesterday, John Dunning (a long-time fan of radio himself) has written the encyclopedia of radio. I didn't have my copy for a long time and had no idea what I was missing. You'll not only be graced with full schedules and showtimes, but also the history of each show, sometimes with memorable quotes from favorite episodes.
The index alone is worth the price of the book, with actors cross-referenced to shows you didn't even know they appeared in. The bold page numbers steer the reader to the featured articles, but reading all the related articles is fun, too. Heck, even just browsing can while away hours of your time, as each show entry will remind you of another that you just have to look up. While looking up one show, the eye crosses the title of another on the page heading and, bang, you're away and have forgotten what you took the book down off the shelf for to begin with. In this way, you'll learn the names of favorite character actors whose voices you recognize from different shows, but whose name escape your memory (Frank Lovejoy and Elliott Lewis leap to my mind). Then, you can look them up in the index and discover more of their work for you to seek out.
Of course, even with a book this size, not all of the shows are going to have exhaustive articles, but Dunning has done as much as one man possibly can. He has compiled obscurities lovingly, interviewed living cast and crew members for memories, sought out archival copies of long-thought-lost shows, and researched like a madman to bring us On the Air. There is not likely to be another encyclopedia of radio that is so much fun to read. In this way, it equates the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll for sheer browsability.
I've read the Lackwanna book (The Encyclopedia of American Radio), and it's okay if you're on a budget or are interested in modern radio (which I'm not), but On the Air is the one that really gives you your money's worth, even though it costs considerably more. You'll be better off saving your money and buying this solid work than wasting less of it on an error-ridden lesser one. Also pick up Dunning's radio novel, Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, for a terrific read that is also a behind-the-scenes look at World War II-era radio.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)