John Dunning

As part of a special CBS.com series profiling mystery writers, CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason interviews John Dunning.

Something happens to John Dunning when he walks into one of Denver's used bookstores. With lizard-like quickness, he attacks. The eyes dart. The jaw drops. He prowls. He scavenges. He hunts.

DUNNING: I've found books in thrift stores that were signed by Harry Truman, with half page inscriptions. I paid 65 cents for that book & sold it for $300.

Anthony Mason


John Dunning is a book scout, a book dealer, a book detective. On the edge of downtown Denver, out by the county jail, he keeps his loot locked in a warehouse. It fills four rooms.

This is actually the mystery room.

This is John Dunning's book collection.

DUNNING: All this here - these are all mystery novels.
MASON: This - all mysteries - everything in this room.
DUNNING: I don't know there's probably 7 or 8,000 different books.

7- or 8-thousand stories of crime, deception & murder.

MASON: Is there such a thing as a book so valuable that somebody would kill for it?
DUNNING: In fiction there is, that's for sure.

In John Dunning's fiction, characters will commit murder for a good book. And dealers, like Dunning himself, are Booked To Die.

DUNNING (reads): Bobby the bookscout was killed at midnight on June 13,1986Â…He had been bludgeoned, battered into the bookscout's hereafter by a heavy metal object. According to the coroner, Bobby had felt no pain: he never knew what hit him. The body was found facedown in the alley, about three blocks from the old Denver post. This is the story of a dead man, how he got that way and what happened to some other people because of his death. No one could think of a reason why anyone would kill Bobby. Who would murder a harmless man like that? I'll tell you why. Then I'll tell you who.

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Books by John Dunning

The character, Cliff Janeway, an ex-cop turned book-dealing detective came to life on Dunning's old Hermes manual 5 years ago. Janeway's exploits in Booked To Die and The Bookman's Wake are based on Dunning's ow adventures while operating a bookstore on Denver's East Colfax Avenue.

DUNNING: And in the Janeway books this is his store. I mean the inside of it. Everything. The way he built the store is the way I built the store.

Dunning was a glass cutter in his first job. In the sixties, he skipped college and went to live at the race track:

DUNNING: I was what they call a guinea. That's a groom. That's race track slang.

He then joined the Denver Post as a file clerk in the photo library. Before long, he was filing front-page stories - like this tale of a drifter buried in Denver's version of Potter's Field.

DUNNING:(reads: A few men stood around the freshly opened grave, where the plain wood coffin covered with gray cloth hung, suspended by straps. But the men were strangers. Not one of them had ever spoken to Richard William Sleigle during his life. They remembered him at the Burlington hotel. That was where Sleigle died February 17th, without shoes, without any kind of identification, and wearing another man's pants. He was found on the bare floor in a kitchen of the second floor hotel room. Even the room where he died wasn't his.

MASON: Why mysteries?
DUNNING: It probably started with the Hardy Boys.

Dunning always appreciated books. But it wasn't until he started collecting them that he learned the value of, say, a first edition of A Is For Alibi published in 1982 by a then unknown writer named Sue Grafton.

DUNNING: And it's up to a grand now.
MASON: A grand?
DUNNING: A thousand dollars. And I think a fairly easy sell at that. If you had a great copy of that you would have no problem getting that for it.
MASON: Do you have it here?
DUNNING: No, I've had it. But I sold mine -too cheap, too soon. That's the book dealer's lament.

Dunning belittled the skyrocketing prices for some contemporary authors in Booked to Die. Ironically, a first edition of Dunning's own book, published just five years ago, now fetches 25 times it's original cover price.

MASON: So if you wanted to buy a copy of your own first Cliff Janeway mystery now you'd have to pay $500. for it.
DUNNING: You know, it's getting to that point now where you'd be lucky to find it for that.

But Dunning knows it's all part of the game.

DUNNING: I have a genuine passion for this stuff. I have a mania. I also am a compulsive collector- as you'll see with the old time radio stuff.

Oh yes, John Dunning also collects.

DUNNING: These things got about 6 inches of dust on them.

Vintage radio programs.
MASON: How many hours of material do you have in all this?
DUNNING: I think I figured I had about 35,000 shows.

Every Saturday night, Dunning takes to the airwaves, broadcasting a show of old shows - to take Denver back to radio's golden age.

He's writing a new mystery now, set in this radio world - it's slow going. John Dunning hunts for words, as carefully as he hunts for books.

MASON: The pile on the floor. What is it?
DUNNING It's failed pages. I'm afraid to count them. Probably 2500. I sometimes spend 3 or 4 days rewriting the same four or five pages, and then, suddenly, I'll get a paragraph or suddenly I'll get 5 or 6 words that makes something that almost works, really work and you never know. I mean the first review I got on The Bookman's Wake was really not a good one, but it was the only bad one I got, that I saw. And for two or three days, I thought, you know, I spent three years rewriting & re-rewriting & re-rewriting this book until I almost went as crazy as my killer. And then Publisher's Weekly comes along and knocks hell out of it. And for two, three days I just went around and I thought, 'it didn't work.' but that was the only bad review I got.

Success has followed in this bookman's wake. Cliff Janeway's creator is still out there stalking fine first editions...and stalking the next Janeway mystery that any editor would kill for

DUNNING: It's the hardest work I know. And yet - there is nothing like it to have done it. The best thing on earth is to have written wellÂ….and then to go out and find a $100 book in a bookstore marked $10. Then you can come home and take the wife out to dinner and feel like the day has been really pretty good.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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