The Sign of the Book, by John Dunning


Years ago I read John Dunning’s detective novel Booked to Die and realized I’d found a new author to stalk during my reading jags. The novel was the first installment in Dunning’s series featuring Cliff Janeway, ex-cop and second-hand bookseller, living, reading, and sleuthing in Denver. I watched for the sequel, The Bookman’s Wake, but somehow missed it (if memory serves). Almost ten years went by before there was a third installment. By then I had stopped monitoring Dunning’s authorial movements.

About seven months ago I stumbled across The Sign of the Book, #4 in the series. I reckoned I could get away with reading it without playing catch-up on #2 and #3. I was right. But I didn’t put this theory to the test until recently. Saturday was my first beach day of the summer. I brought the Dunning novel with me to Corona del Mar and enjoyed my re-introduction to the author and his detective.

To the degree that I can recall, Dunning is true to form in #4. I still like his style and will eventually get to his other series books. Dunning adopts the first person point of view, probably the trickiest POV out there. When reading fiction written in the first person, I have the tendency to ask periodically why the fictional narrator is telling me his or her story. First person point of view doesn’t work for me if there aren’t any clues about the speaker’s motive. The first-person novel is, after all, one long monologue—in this case, 513 pages worth.

Dunning makes it work. Only rarely did I take exception to the way he handled the speaker’s perspective on the mental states of other characters in the story. This novel impresses me as an exemplary specimen of first-person narration. It’s fitting that in the final sentence of the novel, Cliff Janeway remarks, “The mysteries of the human mind are far beyond my comprehension.” (I’m confident that quoting the last sentence is not a spoiler.)

The writing is intelligent, but The Sign of the Book is not literary fiction in the hifalutin sense. Each character speaks in a distinctive fashion that is consistent throughout. The best bit of dialog occurs in a courtroom scene. I was a little confused about the floor plan of an important building at one point in the story. But this was not as much of a handicap for Janeway as it was for me.

This isn’t comic fiction, but Dunning manages to amuse with his choice of words and the dialog at which he excels. Suspense comes in two forms. First there’s the plot and the mystery about who dunnit. But frequently along the way there are stretches of suspenseful action . . . or inaction . . . as well. And that’s critical to the success of a detective novel (in contrast, for example, to the sort of mystery fiction so masterfully crafted by P. D. James).

One more thing. Janeway taught me a new way to survive the monotony of waiting for countless hours with nothing to do. This could come in handy if I’m ever on a stakeout without my Kindle.

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John Dunning is a distinguished author. Booked to Die won him the Nero Wolfe Award, and The Bookman’s Wake appeared on the New York Times list of Notable Books. Other detective novels of his have been nominated for the Edgar Award. In addition to awards, Dunning has readers. Drew Goodman, book sales manager at the University of Utah campus store, has gone so far as to include two of Dunning’s Janeway novels on his “Sacred Shelf of 10,” as of October 25, 2007.

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