I was excited to find a nice first edition hardcover copy of John Dunning’s The Bookwoman’s Last Fling at a bargain table price a few weeks ago. Knowing how popular the previous four Cliff Janeway novels had been with book collectors did make me wonder at the time why such a nice copy of this 2006 novel was still available in mid-2008. Now I think that I can answer that question.
Cliff Janeway, bibliophile ex-cop turned bookstore owner/detective, finds himself in Idaho at the behest of the executor of the estate of H.R. Geiger, a wealthy racehorse owner, in order to appraise the dead man’s book collection. Geiger’s wife, who has been in her grave for two decades, had been an avid collector of juvenile fiction and she left behind a collection of some of the finest first editions of their type known to exist.
Janeway is quick, however, to notice that the collection is not what it appears to be at first glance. Rather, it is a combination of beautiful first editions set along side much more common later printings of other books of the genre. This is no surprise to the man who has asked him to appraise the collection because he already knows that many of the books have been stolen from the shelves and replaced by much less valuable editions. Janeway also realizes almost immediately that he and Junior Willis, the estate executor, have a tremendous personality conflict and that there is little chance he will ever be able to work for the man despite how badly he wants to study the collection’s finer books.
While waiting around to see if he and Junior can come to an agreement about the job, Janeway makes a fateful visit to the deceased woman’s daughter who is in possession of fifty percent of her mother’s books. There he learns that the daughter has long suspected that her mother had been murdered and he agrees to work for her, not only to discover who has been stealing from the collection, but also to determine whether or not her mother was murdered and, if so, who did it.
Janeway’s search leads him into the world of California horseracing and the bulk of the story takes place inside the racetracks where he is convinced the killer will be found. John Dunning has lived and worked in that world and he writes comfortably and capably about the experiences of those who work behind the scenes to make sure that all of that expensive horse flesh is ready to run when the gates fly open. He writes about it so well, and so comfortably, in fact, that The Bookwoman’s Last Fling reads far more like a Dick Francis novel than it does the next Cliff Janeway novel, ensuring disappointment for Dunning’s bibliophile fan base, especially those of us who are not particularly fans of Dick Francis mysteries even when they are penned by Dick Francis himself.
But even more irksome to me, personally, was what appears to be Dunning’s decision to play unfairly with his readers. This is, after all, a mystery and mystery writers know that their readers try to solve the mystery along with the fictional detective working the case. When all the provided clues end up leading nowhere because the murderer turns out to be a minor character thrown into the mix near the end of the book and the detective has nothing more to go on himself than a “feeling” about that character, the covenant between mystery writer and mystery reader has been broken. Such is the case here.
Cliff Janeway is an interesting character and I probably won’t let my disappointment with The Bookwoman’s Last Fling keep me from reading the next installment of his story, if there ever is one. But now I will definitely come to that one a little more skeptical about what I might find within its pages.
Rated at: 3.0