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Mon April 19, 2004
The Bookman's Promise
The dangerous and cut-throat world of book collecting.
By Nicki Leone
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Nicki's commentary.]
As the weather has warmed and the pollen has at last settled out of the air, my reading habits have changed. I have left my old yellow velvet chair, and on sunny days at least find myself sitting on the planks of my weathered front porch, my back against a support post, with a glass of sweet tea and a sleeping cat at my side.
Just as the change of seasons has altered where I read, they have also altered what I feel like reading. I've put down all the thick biographies that helped get me through the long winter, and started reading more novels; I wanted more story, more action, and more plot. Books that are entertaining without being too challenging, books that take readers along for the ride without making them do the driving.
And let me say right now, that just because a novel is a page-turner, doesn't mean it isn't well-written. It may not be Shakespeare, but such books are still capable of transporting the reader to another time or place, of getting their hearts to race and their minds to whirl with the possibilities. I like movies with car chases and explosions, and I like books that tell a rockin' good story.
The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning is perhaps the best of the bunch in my reading stack right now. It is the long-awaited third installment of the author's "Cliff Janeway" series featuring an ex-cop turned rare book dealer. So you can see why I'd like the guy.
The series is set in the murderous and cut-throat world of book collecting. This novel centers around the search for an extremely rare journal supposedly kept by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the most colorful and enigmatic explorer of the Victorian Era. Mostly famous (or infamous) for his anatomically accurate translations of such eastern erotic classics as The Kama Sutra, few people realize that he was in America in 1860, on the eve of our Civil War.
In a leap of imagination that seems entirely plausible, Dunning fills a three month gap in the historical record by imaging Burton taking a jaunt down the coast from Washington to Charleston before setting out on his travels farther west. Whilst in Charleston, Burton (who was also an English spy) would surely have visited the fort, and any conversations he might have had with the troops garrisoned there, any military advice he may have given, would have been, well, significant in light of later events.
Needless to say, there are lots of people looking for Burton's long-lost journal; a Pulitzer-winning historian long-overdue for his next book, a judge with a shot at the Supreme Court and a mania for Burton books, a book dealer who owes a little too much money to the mob, and Janeway himself, who made a promise to a frail old lady who may have been the rightful owner of the journal in the first place.
Janeway is an unusual bird for a detective because he has a good sense of humor. But he is as hardboiled as they come, and the dialogue in Bookman's Promise can be deliciously gritty. Still, the real attraction is the charismatic Richard Burton. Dunning pours a very personal enthusiasm for the man into the story. The idea that it might have been a few well-placed words on Burton's part that eventually set in motion the events that led to the first act of the Civil War is as irresistible as it is improvable. By the end of the book, even the reader is a Burton fanatic--and odds are, you'll start looking for anything you can find about the man who walked and sailed around the planet, enjoying every salacious minute of it. But stick to the reprints, because original Burton books are rare and obviously a little dangerous to own!
Nicki Leone is the manager of an independent bookstore in Wilmington.