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Further Adventures in Book Land
An Interview with John Dunning

by Catherine Petruccione

#65, 3 April 2006

John Dunning's latest book, The Bookwoman's Last Fling (Scribner, ISBN: 0743289455) is another suspenseful romp featuring bookseller/ex-cop Cliff Janeway, this time taking readers to the backsides of race tracks on the West Coast in search of a killer and bibliomaniacal book thief. Janeway is called upon to inspect a huge and valuable collection of rare children's books and determine which ones are missing and who is stealing them. Candice Geiger, a wealthy woman who amassed the collection, has been dead for years from an apparent allergic reaction, but as Janeway's investigation unfolds, another family member is murdered in cold blood, and the death of Candice becomes suspicious as well. John Dunning's inside knowledge of both the book world and horse racing gives authentic detail to the story.

The Bookwoman's Last Fling is scheduled for release on May 23, 2006. Like other Janeway novels, it's a page-turner laced with nuggets of information on valuable books. And here's even better news: This is definitely NOT that "last fling" for best-selling author John Dunning. He will be back with another Cliff Janeway mystery in the future. I spoke with Mr. Dunning recently about his life, his writing and his latest book.

BOOKTHINK: Have you always lived in Colorado?

I was born in Brooklyn, but my family moved to South Carolina when I was three years old. Later on, my best friend decided that he and his wife would move to Colorado. I was stuck in a dead-end job in a glass factory making $1.35 an hour (and that was after I got a raise). I decided it was time for me to get out of Charleston as well. So we all got in the car and came to Denver, and I've been here ever since. The race track scenes in the book are all based on remembered stuff. I didn't research it - I lived it. When I came out here I went to work at Centennial Race Track and from there to California and did the Sacramento and Santa Anita tracks, and some of the other places I wrote about. It's been forty years, of course, since I did this.

BOOKTHINK: I get the impression from reading your books that you may have had law enforcement experience - or have done a lot of research in that area.

I was police reporter for the Denver Post, rode in cars with them and such, but had no real experience in law enforcement. Mostly I wing it, and I go by what basically feels right. If it feels right, sounds right, and smells right, I make the assumption that it probably is right - and I hope it works.

BOOKTHINK: When you begin a novel, do books suggest the plot or do you weave books into a plot you already have in mind?

I have done it both ways. In the old days, I used to start out with an idea and grope. Now I just grope. I start somewhere, and then I just meddle, so to speak.

BOOKTHINK: This book made me think about what happens to private book collections after the collector dies. What should people consider if they have a nice collection - or inherit one?

My feeling is that you have to be careful. Giving a collection to a library isn't always a good choice. The libraries are all going to hate me for this, but the fact is, a lot of libraries don't know what to do with a great collection. They don't have any idea how to handle it or how to take care of it. The collection we are talking about in my book is fictionalized, of course, but it is the kind of collection you would never want to have fall into the wrong hands.

BOOKTHINK: Near the end of the story, Janeway receives a thank-you gift - a package with a great book inside, and yet you don't reveal the title. Did you have one in mind when you wrote this into the story?

You know, I think my wife mentioned to me that perhaps I should tell the readers what book was in the package, but I didn't want to name the book. I wanted to let the reader imagine a great book for themselves.

BOOKTHINK: At one point in the story, Janeway finds himself in a situation of having to choose between focusing his attention on a life-threatening stake-out or diverting it and checking out what looks like a valuable book being offered for sale just out of his reach. Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where it wasn't the right time or place, but the book was there, ripe for the plucking?

No, I can't say that I have. I've always been able to grab the book. This situation in the book was totally made up. Then of course, the reader is wondering whether the book will be there when he goes back for it.

BOOKTHINK: Even though Janeway has spent years as a homicide cop, he still seems to have an underlying affection for people: He's willing to give them a chance. Is this a reflection of your character as well?

You're asking me for a self-congratulatory image here, which I don't want to do, but I think anything a writer writes is a reflection of his own character. Which I suppose doesn't reflect very well on some writers who write about serial killers and similar material. Janeway is an idealization, with feet of clay. He is somebody who, if I were in a different life, I wouldn't mind being.

BOOKTHINK: I loved the cover art on The Bookwoman's Last Fling. It was quite different from the other Janeway novels.

Did you like it? That's great. There was a really mixed reaction to it. It's grown on me. The other books in this series - The Bookman's Promise had a wonderful cover on it, and The Sign of the Book did too. With this book, we were all operating under a sense of urgency because they "crashed" the book, which means that they produced it in half the time that it normally takes. This means that everybody, from me to the Art Director to everyone else in the process had to get their jobs done in front of the original time frame, but I think it all worked out fine. There's something in each of these books that people do or don't like. In the Burton book, for instance (The Bookman's Promise), it's not linear. It doesn't go straight through. There's a bump when Burton and Speke come in, and some people loved that, others didn't.

BOOKTHINK: Have you ever known a really bad bibliomaniac?

Like the one in the book? No, I've never known anybody who kills people over books. But that will be the next thing, because how do describe a bibliomaniac? Some will go to any lengths to get the books they want.

BOOKTHINK: How about the stolen book trade? Do you think a lot of it goes on?

We've experienced some of that, and I do think there's a lot of it that goes on. Some book dealers have books stolen from their stores, and they don't even know about it for years, if they ever find out, because most of us don't have a record of everything that's in the store. In our case, we had some 20,000 books in our store. Over the years you tend to forget what you have, unless it's a glass case item or something like that. And it's amazing - some of these people can get books out of a glass case. Now don't ask me how they can do that, but we've had items go missing from a glass case - a locked glass case. Go figure.

BOOKTHINK: Do you and your wife Helen still have the book shop, The Old Algonquin?

We actually closed the store about ten years ago. We have been trying to sell off the stock ever since. We just lowered a bunch of prices. Some of the books that I priced when I looked on the internet back then - there were only three or four copies. Now you look up the same book, and there are eighty or so. It's kind of dismal, to tell you the truth. I know you hear this from every bookseller who ever lived, but it isn't as much fun as it used to be. When I first got into it, I thought, "Where has this been all my life?" I loved it. But then as time went on, it was less lovable. People always want more than you can give them.

On the one hand, the book scouts want more money, and on the other hand, the customers want to pay less. I absolutely loved the business for the first seven or eight years. It becomes more like a job every day. You get the book for the best price you can get it for and do the best you can to offer it at a fair price. People don't understand. The average person looks their book up on the net and sees three similar books listed for $100, and they think they can bring a copy to a bookseller and get $100 for it. Well, show me any bookseller who can do that and stay in business. How is the bookseller going to make any money? You've got to cover the rent and other overhead, not to mention the time it takes to deal with people.

BOOKTHINK: How did you happen to name your bookshop the Old Algonquin? I am curious if it had some relationship to the famous hotel in New York City where literary figures gathered.

Ah, you mean the "Round Table"? Sure, I have a round table. I put it in the store. I had the idea that my writer friends would come down and we would talk about weighty issues of the day. But that never happened. For one reason, I had too much to do just to keep the book store going. People who have this romantic idea of "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have a little book store" don't know how much work is actually involved in it.

BOOKTHINK: I know you also have a love for and have written some very successful books about old-time radio.

Yeah, I'm done with that now, though. I don't have any real need to revisit that area. I've worked in it, I've done books on it, and that's enough.

BOOKTHINK: Are you working on another Janeway book?

Oh yeah, I'm always fiddling with something. I don't have anything plotted, but another one will be coming. I've been getting a lot of questions from people who have seen the title of this book, and they think it's the bookman's last fling, and it's not. It doesn't end there. I will keep writing.

BOOKTHINK: Do you have a favorite genre for your own enjoyment?

No, I just like a good book. Doesn't have to be a mystery. I love John Gardner's books, for instance, Mickelsson's Ghosts. I love John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus - those books are just classics.

BOOKTHINK: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Besides finding great entertainment in your books, we always glean some bits of knowledge and wisdom from your work about books and book collecting.

I hope so, and I was happy to do the interview.

Books by John Dunning


Tune in Yesterday, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1976). (An encyclopedic history of old-time radio). There were two hardback printings, identified by a chain of numbers beginning with '1'. The first printings have two sections of black-and-white photographs, though some second printings also have the pictures. Earliest jacket has two prices: $14.95 'til 1/1/77; $17.95 thereafter.

Denver, Times Books, NY, 1980. A novel, two printings: no statement on the first. "Second printing, February 1980" later added to copyright page. The first had a tan cloth spine; the second is dark brown paper. First edition was about 5,000 copies.

Looking for Ginger North, Fawcett Gold Medal, NY, 1980. Paperback original, Edgar finalist.

Deadline, a mystery novel, Fawcett Gold Medal, NY, 1981. Paperback original, one printing only. Edgar finalist.

Deadline, Gollancz, London, 1982. First hardback edition: yellow dustjacket, one small printing only, probably far fewer than 1,000 copies. A very scarce book today.

Deadline, Cahill, Huntington Beach, 1995: first American hardback, about 1,300 copies, with the infamous Ragen Mendenhall dust jacket showing the little girl, nude, dead in the flames. Also published in a slipcased limited edition, 200 copies with a chapbook, The Torch Passes.

Booked to Die, the first Cliff Janeway mystery>. Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1992. Winner of the Nero Wolfe Award. This book went through five hardcover printings, all designated by the chain of numbers on the copyright page. There were 6,500 firsts.

The Bookman's Wake, a Cliff Janeway Mystery, Scribner, NY, 1995. Five printings, chain of numbers on the copyright page. Finalist for best novel Edgar Award (US) and Gold Dagger Award (England). A New York Times Notable Book of the Year. More than 30,000 firsts.

Bookscout, a short story published in limited hardback, Ten Tales, 1994, with nine other authors. James Cahill Publishing, Huntington Beach.

Bookscout, Chapbook, first separate edition, Dinkytown Books, Minneapolis, 1998. Sold only at six book fairs, with individual fairs mentioned on back panels of the dust jackets.

Dreamer, a story published in hardback. 125 copies. Cahill, Huntington Beach.

On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998. Five printings, designated by the chain of numbers on the copyright page.

Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, a radio mystery, Scribner, NY, 2001. One large hardcover printing. A "fingerprint edition" of 2,500 copies was offered by the publisher - the regular trade edition with a satiric limitation page tipped in, containing the author's fingerprints. There was also a specially bound real limited edition of 126 signed copies: Santa Teresa Press, Santa Barbara.

The Bookman's Promise, Scribner, 2004. The third Cliff Janeway bookman mystery. Also in paperback by Pocket Books, 2005.

The Sign of the Book, Scribner, March 2005. Fourth book in the Janeway series.

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