Two or three years ago, I discovered John Dunning’s work. Dunning writes mysteries with a series character named Cliff Janeway. Former tough cop turned bookshop owner/operator Janeway narrates the tales of the book-related mysteries he solves. Along the way, the reader learns a little about collectible books and the world of bookshops.
Being the A.R. person I am, I always try to read an author’s books in the order in which they were written. This is extremely easy to do when borrowing books from the local library, since the librarians number each of an author’s books chronologically, right on the spine. In most cases, they’re even shelved in order.
The Sign of the Book was Dunning’s first Janeway book. I don’t remember why I picked it up, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. It was some of the best mystery fiction I’d read in a long time. A good plot, good characterization, and good dialog. I went through it quickly and felt extremely satisfied — but ready for more — when I was done.
I then began reading the rest of Dunning’s Janeway books. The second wasn’t quite as good as the first, but it was still very good. The third wasn’t quite as good as the second. That made it above average. The fourth wasn’t as good as the third. I was definitely seeing a pattern here. It was as if Dunning was steadily losing his touch.
The Bookwoman’s Last Fling was a disappointment, plain and simple. It’s difficult, in fact, to believe that it was written by the same author who penned The Sign of the Book.
The book’s plot was contrived — Janeway makes conclusions without proper evidence (a violation of the mystery writers’ rule of “fair play’) and his actions based on those conclusions steer the plot. For example, early in the book, he decides that he needs to spend time at a certain racetrack where a woman who died 20+ years before had spent a lot of time. Why? There’s no clear reason provided. Once he gets there, does he start doing the logical thing — asking questions? No. That comes later, after more illogical activities. Clearly, the character is driven by the author, not by the circumstances he’s put into.
The dialog was flat and unrealistic. One of the things I liked best about Dunning’s first Janeway book was the snappy dialog. It flowed and was fun to read. As a reader, I felt alone with the characters, “listening” to them talk. In this book, Dunning seems to be working too hard to get those words out, and that effort is quite apparent to the reader. I’m not alone with the characters; I’m alone with the author, who is trying desperately to communicate what his characters may or may not have said. And although I usually feel that an author’s words are sacred and shouldn’t be over-edited, an editor could easily have cut 30% of the dialog and the reader wouldn’t have missed a thing.
The dialog was also difficult to follow. I’ve read a lot of novels, but I’ve never had so much trouble keeping track of who was speaking. Many, many quotes are unattributed to their speakers. That wouldn’t be a problem if Dunning had stuck to the common writing convention of starting new paragraphs for each speaker. But in some instances, the same unattributed speaker speaks in two paragraphs in a row or the attribution is simply unclear. Never before had I wished to see a few more “he said” or “she said” phrases.
Characterization was also flat and lifeless. The characters didn’t come off the pages. Dunning told you their traits; except in a few instances, he didn’t really show you much. Character relationships weren’t brought out, either — even between Janeway and his lady friend. What is their relationship, anyway?
I feel bad about writing such an unfavorable book review for an author whose work I’ve admired in the past. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Dunning wrote this book — and likely some of his previous books — under pressure by editors to produce another big seller. Apparently, he didn’t have the book in him — at least not when he wrote it.
I believe that a writer has to be internally driven to write a book in order to produce good work. External pressures can’t squeeze a book out of an author who just isn’t in the right frame of mind to produce. In reading Dunning’s later work, I get the feeling that he just wasn’t ready to write when he did.