Author : John Dunning
Publication Date : January 25, 2005
Publisher : Pocket Star Books
No. of pages : 496 (Mass Market Paperback)
Homicide cop turned book collector and seller, Cliff Janeway acquires a valuable book written by a famous Victorian era explorer, Richard Burton. The book is in pristine condition and worth thousands of dollars; but, Janeway’s pleasure is short-lived. A ninety-year old woman shows up at his door, claiming ownership of the treasured book through her grandfather, Charles Warren, whom she insisted to have been Burton’s companion during one of his travels.
Furthermore, she tells a surprised Janeway that the book is only part of an incredible library of Burton material, all of which had been sold unscrupulously to shady book dealers. A few days after, the old woman is on her deathbed and extracts a promise from Janeway : find the rare collection, in particular, a priceless journal which purportedly Burton gave to her grandfather for safekeeping.
What starts out as a skeptical investigation soon becomes a serious and deadly tag with other treasure hunters. When a friend is murdered, Janeway realizes there is something more than just treasure hunting. A past secret is being covered up and Janeway is now in the way.
The Review :
With “The Bookman’s Promise“, John Dunning presents us with some refreshing elements for a crime/mystery thriller. Now a book collector is a macho hero and the hullabaloo is about books — old, invaluable books written by a real live explorer, Richard Francis Burton. Plus, the author incorporates the world of a book trader which makes for an interesting facet in this novel.
As much as Burton becomes, through Dunning’s engaging portrayal of the man, an intriguing personality for a number of his readers, this novel still very much targets a small niche in the reading audience. Not many, this reviewer included, have heard of this famously irreverent explorer and so may have some difficulty in appreciating the novel in the way it deserves. One simply cannot appreciate Burton’s idiosyncrasies or whatever the author wishes to please us with if one does not know him. Familiarity of Burton is indeed essential for the full enjoyment of this book as the core plot is rather mundane, despite the aforementioned new elements.
However, if you are familiar with Burton, you may take a different tack. You would perhaps revel in the fictitious or factual (I wouldn’t know which) details generously written in the book and pronounce Dunning’s novel a capital one. This is simply this reviewer’s conjecture on something she is not very sure about.
Like its hero, the prose is quite masculine. One could immediately discern that the story was written by a man, which is nice as long as the testosterone is not overly used to include most of its characters. However, it does, as the majority of the characters, whether male or female, exhibit a strong will and drive.
Dunning’s characters show too many strong traits as to render them sometimes irksome and distant. For instance, Erin is a sassy lawyer who constantly takes offense at anything she deems chauvinistic. This is okay in some situations but downright pesky in some, where, in reality, she clearly will be in the way. She is not a character one can empathize much with, unless one believes that someone can be constantly strong and fearless. There seems a lot of sass in the dialogues, too, between characters which tend to be tiresome halfway through.
In A Nutshell :
“The Bookman’s Promise” is neither a great novel nor a very bad one. One major weakness is that a reader’s unfamiliarity with Burton may be a significant block for him seeking to enjoy this novel. This, and possible character non-empathy could be two very detrimental factors in capturing reader interest. Otherwise, it could be an enjoyable read.
Having said these, I recognize that there are probably two stark opposing camps to this novel : those who loved it (readers who understood the nuances of Burton and the book trade) and those who just couldn’t get into it (readers who don’t know a fig about them). Sadly, I belong to the latter for the reasons stated above: I don’t know Burton and I just couldn’t like the characters so much.
My Mark : Mediocre
But you must read the book to know for sure.