Saturday, July 24, 2021

Book Review: The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning

The Bookman's Promise 

John Dunning
Series: Cliff Janeway Novels (Book 3)
Publication: Charles Scribner's Sons (February 24, 2004)

Description: Cliff Janeway is back! The Bookman's Promise marks the eagerly awaited return of Denver bookman-author John Dunning and the award-winning crime novel series that helped to turn the nation on to first-edition book collecting.

First, it was Booked to Die, then The Bookman's Wake. Now John Dunning fans, old and new, will rejoice in The Bookman's Promise, a richly nuanced new Janeway novel that juxtaposes past and present as Denver ex-cop and bookman Cliff Janeway searches for a book and a killer.

The quest begins when an old woman, Josephine Gallant, learns that Janeway has recently bought at auction a signed first edition by the legendary nineteenth-century explorer Richard Francis Burton. The book is a true classic, telling of Burton's journey (disguised as a Muslim) to the forbidden holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Boston auction house was a distinguished and trustworthy firm, but provenance is sometimes murky and Josephine says the book is rightfully hers.

She believes that her grandfather, who was living in Baltimore more than eighty years ago, had a fabulous collection of Burton material, including a handwritten journal allegedly detailing Burton's undercover trip deep into the troubled American South in 1860. Josephine remembers the books from her childhood, but everything mysteriously disappeared shortly after her grandfather's death.

With little time left in her own life, Josephine begs for Janeway's promise: he must find her grandfather's collection. It's a virtually impossible task, Janeway suspects, as the books will no doubt have been sold and separated over the years, but how can he say no to a dying woman?

It seems that her grandfather, Charlie Warren, traveled south with Burton in the spring of 1860, just before the Civil War began. Was Burton a spy for Britain? What happened during the three months in Burton's travels for which there are no records? How did Charlie acquire his unique collection of Burton books? What will the journal, if it exists, reveal?

When a friend is murdered, possibly because of a Burton book, Janeway knows he must find the answers. Someone today is willing to kill to keep the secrets of the past, and Janeway's search will lead him east: To Baltimore, to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with a very stuffed shirt, and to a pair of unorthodox booksellers. It reaches a fiery conclusion at Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.

What's more, a young lawyer, Erin d'Angelo, and ex-librarian Koko Bujak, have their own reasons for wanting to find the journal. But can Janeway trust them?

Rich with the insider's information on rare and collectible books that has made John Dunning famous, and with meticulously researched detail about a mesmerizing figure who may have played an unrecognized role in our Civil War, The Bookman's Promise is riveting entertainment from an extraordinarily gifted author who is as unique and special as the books he so clearly loves.

My Thoughts: This story begins when Cliff Janeway appears on a radio program and talks about a rare book that he bought at an auction in Boston. He paid more than $29,000 for a copy of Pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca by Richard Burton. After his appearance, he hears from all sorts of people including those who want to sell him items by the actor Richard Burton. One of the calls, which he thought came from just one more nut, came from Josephine Gallant who tells him that the book was stolen from her family.

When Mrs. Gallant - nearly blind, over 90, and dying - comes to see him in Denver, Cliff begins to believe her story but wonders what he can do to find a book collection that has been missing for more than 80 years. Mrs. Gallant is befriended by a couple while she's in Denver and dies in their home. Just days later, the woman in the couple is found to have been smothered to death and her husband is the prime suspect. Cliff is determined to find her killer and to keep his promise to Mrs. Gallant to find her family's missing collection of Burton's books.

As Cliff investigates, we get a look into the world of book collecting as we see his friend Judge Lee Huxley and a pair of fourth generation book collectors in Baltimore. We meet Erin d'Angelo who is a mentee of the judge and Cliff''s new love interest. We also meet Koko Bujak who is a retired librarian who has hours of tape documenting Mrs. Gallant's life and a pair of rangers at Fort Sumter who are also fans of Richard Burton.

Woven through this whole story is Richard F. Burton who was a master linguist, soldier, spy, explorer and chronicler of his travels who was an immensely prolific author and a very important nineteenth-century character. Although he wrote about everything, there is one three-month period of his life that is missing. He traveled through the American South just before the Civil War with Charles Warren, the man who amassed the large collection of Burton's works that is the object of Cliff's hunt. 

I really enjoyed the way the story was written. It is a memoir written after the time when Cliff tracked down the collection, hunted for a killer, and learned more about himself as a book collector. It includes a section about that missing three month period garnered from Mrs. Gallant's memories of what her grandfather told her and her own reading of the missing journal. 

This book is the third in a five-book series. I want to know more about the past that is just briefly referred to in this one. He mentions leaving the police force under something of a cloud but I want to know more about Cliff and his transition from detective to bookseller and book collector. 

Favorite Quote:
"Can you imagine what it's like to write for years and get nowhere? To know in your heart that you're something special and watch your books get rejected and rejected and rejected, over and over till the paper they were typed on begins to come apart. I'll tell you what happens to writers like that. One day they wake up and they're old. All that promise just seems to flush away overnight and they've got nothing to show for it except a wasted life."
I bought this one September 26, 2015. You can buy your copy here.

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