Friday, May 26, 2023

Closing the Book on Dunning

John Dunning, who became quite popular in the 1990s and early 2000s for his multiple mystery novels starring Cliff Janeway, a Denver bookseller and former policeman, passed away on May 23 at age 81. The Denver Gazette reports that Dunning had “suffered from dementia caused by a brain tumor, which led to a ‘long dying,’”

Born in Brooklyn. New York, on January 9, 1942, Dunning moved with his parents to South Carolina at age 3. After dropping out of high school and then serving briefly with the U.S. Army, he relocated again in his early 20s, this time to the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado. He labored there for several years as a stable hand at a horse-racing track (a background he later drew upon to pen at least two novels), before scoring a city-side reporting position with The Denver Post. (The Gazette says he was known to “run through the newsroom on assignment with his shirt hanging out.”) In 1970, Dunning finally left the newspaper in order to try his hand at penning novels, the first of which—a detective yarn titled The Holland Suggestions—saw print in 1975. He went on to release several more novels, plus a non-fiction work, Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925–1976 (1976), before he quit writing for a while in 1984, very frustrated with the process of getting his books published. Instead, Dunning and his wife, Helen, opened a second-hand and rare books business in east Denver called the Old Algonquin Bookstore. He also launched a Sunday morning program on the now long-gone AM station KNUS 710, during which he played old radio shows. “No one knew where he got his collection of unique recordings,” the Gazette recalls. “But every weekend, he would lug in his boxes of reel-to-reel tapes, thread them on a machine and let them run.”

Wikipedia says it was “the urging of fellow authors” that eventually convinced John Dunning to give fiction-writing a second shot. In 1992 he introduced Cliff Janeway in Booked to Die, which found his protagonist leaving the Denver police force amid spurious brutality charges, then opening a shop called Twice Told Books, while at the same time he investigated the murder of a book scout. Kirkus Reviews called Booked to Die “a lively, seductive primer on how to open a bookstore, spot a first edition, warehouse it, price it, and enjoy it for its own sake.” The novel went on to win the Nero Award and Dilys Award, and was nominated for an Anthony Award.

Over the next 14 years, Dunning produced four additional Janeway yarns, plus a standalone historical novel, Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime. This new commitment to fiction left him too busy to operate a commercial enterprise, so in June 1994 he closed the Old Algonquin Bookstore, but continued to peddle stock on the Internet.

In 2006, Dunning was found to be suffering from a brain tumor. Although it was partially removed, “ongoing problems” prevented him from producing more novels and apparently opened the gates to cognitive decline. A sad turn for someone once so full of imagination.

READ MORE:John Dunning, R.I.P.,” by George Easter (Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine); “R.I.P.—A World-Class Bookman” (Seattle Mystery Bookshop).


Anonymous said...

Thank you for noting John Dunning's passing. His Cliff Janeway books were a large part of my ongoing love of mystery novels, and I was particularly happy to see you reference Two o'clock Eastern Wartime. I have such happy memories of that book that I just located and ordered a used copy so that I can enjoy it again.

Mementominnie said... of the advance guard for "books about books".

Good-natured,fun reads and yes,what a sad ending.

Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why little has been heard from him since the last Janeway books . Splendid writer.
I'll have to reread.

Beth Kanell said...

What a relief for the people close to John Dunning, to see this "long dying" reach its finale. Dave and I loved his books, and I recall how heartbroken we were when we learned he'd lost the capacity to write more. Those books will live on, as a treasure.