Dorothy Parker Mysteries

A Dog Detective

A Dog Detective

It Seems to Me . . . was the byline of Heywood Broun’s
column in The World

Usually, I can open a novel and after a couple of paragraphs tell if the author is writing down to his audience or raising the bar to meet his/her public on level or higher ground.  I hate it when an author assumes I’m a dope who will tolerate the confirmation of that assumption by the very act of continuing to read the book.  Sorry, Nicholas Sparks and his like who write for the mindless masses; schmaltz aside, a good romance doesn’t have to be silly.  And then there are all of those ridiculous recipe/knitting/jelly jar/home repair/tea cake/ animal menagerie mystery writers of cutesy, mindless, witless and ultimately boring “buddy” cozies that flood the mystery market.   Old ladies write them for slightly dimmer old ladies to read, I suppose, because you can always guess who wrote them by the mundane dialogue and middle school narrative.  Enough, already, Rita Mae Brown!  Enough, Lilian Jackson Braun of the Cat Who Did This or That series! (If she hadn’t passed away last year at age 97, there might have been more tired Qwilleran and his darn Siamese cats mysteries!  I loved the first three books in the series.  In 2007, a clever writer wrote The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun!)  You have to know when to retire a series, not wait until you’re dead to relieve the tedium.  Agatha Christie had sense and knew when Poirot had to go, for cry’noutloud!  Although I never tire of Hercule . . . .

Now for an exception:  If you want a fun romp through Manhattan with an intellectually superior Labrador Retriever, Randolph, and his rather dense owner, check out a really clever cozy that I found delightful with J.F. Englert’s,  Dog About Town, and his Bull Moose Dog Run series.  Funny, with a cosmopolitan twist.

When I discovered the great mystery writer Ngaio Marsh (pronounced “Nigh-O”)—I found her to be a far better writer than Agatha Christie; Marsh wrote 33 mysteries, all tightly woven tales and with a thread of dark humor running through them.  I felt like I’d discovered a treasure trove of jewels.  Her books have been reprinted in paperback, and are worth the read.

Now, a dozen or more years ago I read a mystery novel in which the police detective owned a used bookstore.  I enjoyed the book very much, but as is often the case with me, because I read so much, or perhaps because I was distracted back then, due to a period of what I call “life turbulence”, I failed to remember the title or the book’s author.   Some books stay with you, for whatever reason.  This mystery was so unique and had such style and was written with great skill, that I thought for sure I might track it down by just asking, “The mystery novel about a detective who owns a used bookstore, who wrote it?”, but I never found anyone—librarians or bookstore owners—who knew what the hell I was talking about.  Last year, while riffling through books at a library book sale, there it was!  At last!  The title and author clearly displayed on the book jacket:  Booked to Die by John Dunning!  I was thrilled, and soon reread the novel, and delighted once again, I poured through the rest of “the Bookman” series.

John Dunning is one of the greats:  A brilliant writer who raises the mystery genre to an art form.  Lots of mystery writers win awards, as has John Dunning, but not all are equally skilled.  His dialogue is crisp and engaging and intelligent and hysterically funny and honest.  His character, Cliff Janeway (the cop turned antiquarian bookseller), possesses high moral convictions, and even though he could get away with a few indiscretions, he is ethically driven.  And what woman wouldn’t fall for the clever man?   And what man wouldn’t want to be him?  And there is the inclusion of the fascinating world of the collectible book market.  I have recommended the series to my mystery reading friends, and they weren’t disappointed.

Some months ago I wrote to Mr. Dunning as a fan to tell him how much I enjoyed his work, and to ask if another Janeway mystery was in the works.  He wrote back, explaining he’d suffered a few health issues that made writing difficult, and that he wasn’t so sure there’d be another novel.  I wrote back to say, I hoped so, and blatantly added, “I think you will write another”.  Nervy of me.  Shameful, really, I realized after I sent the note, because I know how much energy and hard work it takes to write a book, and who am I to say to another author what is possible?   I suppose it was the Selfish Agata who wanted him to give me another Janeway adventure.

Now, I had waited twenty-plus years for Jack Finney’s sequel of Time and Again! to appear.   From Time to Time was fun, yes, if a tad disappointing.  And I am reminded of the misguided money-driven mistakes of the Gone With the Wind and Rebecca sequels!  Let’s say, sequels most often undermine the original work.  Some books should stand alone.  But our appetite for more is the way of most series fans:  You just don’t want to let the characters in the series go!

Today,  John Dunning’s first editions (forget the signed editions) are valuable collectibles.  Rightly so!  P.S. Christmas wish list.

I have never been a fan of police procedurals, but I have read a few from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and admire Ed Mc Bain, who was really Evan Hunter, who was really, Salvadore Albert Lombino, before he changed his name; a nice Italian boy, a friend of my sister’s, and a very serious author.  The 87th series was his bread and butter series, but there was more to Mr. Hunter than the authoring of tightly plotted big city crime novels.  Besides the popular series, he wrote The Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds.  And then there was Lizzie, the definitive account of the Lizzie Borden murder case.  But many years ago I read a spectacular novel, which he considered his finest work, entitled, Streets of Gold.  It is a remarkable and touching portrait of Italian immigrant life at the turn of Twentieth Century New York City.  It’s one of those compelling books that stay with you for a lifetime, like Henry Roth’s, Call It Sleep, or Mario Puzo’s, A Fortunate Pilgrim.  If you can find a copy of Streets, grab it.

Until next time,


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