Review

The Bookwoman's Last Fling

by John Dunning



Ancient Oz books with colored plates. Rows of Nancy Drews and
Bobbsey Twins. WINNIE THE POOH keeping company with ALICE and MARY
POPPINS. I love wandering among shelves of antiquarian books,
craning my neck until I need a chiropractic adjustment. Shopping
for the latest reads is one thing; the collectors' circuit is quite
another. It is all about the quest --- which, if children's books
are your passion (they're mine), can be a real journey into the
past.


So I was enchanted to find that a collection of juvenilia (as they
call it in the book biz) figures in THE BOOKWOMAN'S LAST FLING, the
most recent of John Dunning's witty, literate mysteries. For this
outing, though, Dunning gallops into Dick Francis territory: horse
racing. (If you don't know Francis's work, get thee to Amazon
immediately --- since 1962 this gifted Brit has written 38 tense,
economical thrillers, always in an equestrian setting, that are
enthralling whether or not you've ever sat on a horse, or bet on
one. His 39th is slated for a September release.) Dunning, it
seems, worked at racetracks before he became a bookseller and
writer, and here he uses that insider info to add a new sort of
local color to the page-turning adventures of Cliff Janeway ---
former cop, book dealer, and now book detective.


The story begins in Idaho, where celebrated horse owner and trainer
H.R. Geiger has just died. His estate can't be settled until the
book collection of his late wife, Candice, has been assessed. Enter
Janeway, who discovers cheaper reprints cropping up among her
priceless, mint-condition first editions (Dunning's descriptions of
these, especially the children's stuff, are wonderfully juicy),
suggesting theft and hasty substitutions. As is his habit, Janeway
soon expands his mandate to an investigation of her mysterious
death 20 years earlier. (Was she murdered by someone aware of her
fatal allergy to peanuts?) Although Candice seems to have cast a
spell over everyone she met, her marriage to this much older man
was not happy; he, it seems, had potency problems --- hence her
affairs and, ultimately, the "last fling" of the title.


Our hero's search for the truth takes him to California, where he
goes undercover as a racetrack employee and is almost killed for
his trouble several times (including one hair-raising sequence in
which Janeway, locked in the trunk of a car, hears the villain
sloshing gasoline on the vehicle as he prepares to torch it). You
won't guess the culprit, but here's a clue: It has to do with the
difference between bibliophilia (which I, and no doubt you, have in
spades) and bibliomania (the compulsion to acquire books by any
means necessary and hoard rather than love or read them --- the
foundations of one bibliomaniac's house actually cracked under the
weight of his accumulated stacks).


Dunning has a gift for building characters: not only Janeway
himself, with his physicality, brains and intrinsic sense of
justice, but also Candice's daughter, Sharon, an
heiress-with-a-cause who rescues doomed horses, and any number of
colorful individuals at her ranch and around the racetrack. (I
adored Martha, a gritty would-be writer and racetrack freelancer
who may have been inspired by the author's own life.) Those who
have read the earlier books may wonder if Erin, Cliff Janeway's
lawyer girlfriend, is still around --- yes, she is, and she does
play a (smallish) role in the proceedings. But although Dunning's
dialogue is usually terrific, the banter between Cliff and Erin ---
he, wry and pugnacious; she, protective and prickly --- seemed to
me a bit forced and self-conscious this time around.


There are also a couple of problems with pace and balance. The
novel begins, for example, with a 45-page conversation between
Janeway and the unpleasant guy who initially employs him: It's an
atypically awkward, wordy way to establish Janeway's character and
lay out the fundamentals of the plot. As for the racetrack angle, I
think the detail Dunning lavishes on the care and feeding of
horses, although interesting, is a bit excessive, and doesn't
necessarily advance or enhance the story. The book part and the
horse part of THE BOOKWOMAN'S LAST FLING jostle along in an uneasy,
not altogether plausible partnership.


Despite these lapses, Dunning still takes the reader for a helluva
good ride. My favorite moment: Janeway is staking out a restaurant
where Martha, wearing a wire, is meeting a murder suspect. Killing
time in a nearby thrift store, he finds a rare, possibly valuable
mystery by John D. MacDonald on the shelf. Before he can buy it
(for 75 cents!) the bad guy leaves the restaurant and Janeway has
to follow. When he goes back the next day, the book is gone. The
tension between a quiet, bookish existence and a life of action and
intrigue could not be more perfectly embodied --- and it's a
tension that Dunning, at the end of the book, sets up in Janeway's
own character, as he wrestles with his recurrent desire to be a cop
again.


Dunning fans won't be disappointed by THE BOOKWOMAN'S LAST FLING.
And since there are a lot of horse lovers out there, perhaps with
this venture into equestrian territory, he will corral a few new
admirers.


   
















Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 22, 2010

The Bookwoman's Last Fling
by John Dunning

  • Publication Date: March 27, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Pocket
  • ISBN-10: 1416523391
  • ISBN-13: 9781416523390