Sunday 15 June 2008

A Wee Review - The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve never encountered a protagonist who uses the words “erm” or “aaggh” more often or more effectively than Israel Armstrong; the hero of The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom. Did I say hero? Well, yes. But this young librarian is a hero of a very different kind. One you’ll be hard pressed to meet the like of again. So please, do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Not convinced yet? All right, then. Read on.

Israel has come from trendy north London to the small Northern Irish town of Tumdrum, County Antrim, to take up the very important post of head librarian. Unfortunately, upon arrival, he finds out that the library has been closed. Naturally worried that he is now out of a job, he goes to see his direct line manager, Linda Wei, of the Tumdrum town council. She assures him that he can rest at ease. The council have decided to reinstate the old mobile library, and Israel’s contract allows him a post as the mobile librarian. Great! Except that Israel believes the mobile library languishes at the bottom of the library hierarchy, the actual Bedford bus-type van-ish vehicle is a death trap and all 15,000 library books have gone missing. As the head librarian, it falls under Israel’s remit to solve the case of the missing books. Unfortunately, he is quite probably the worst amateur detective ever.

Ian Sansom is an Englishman living in Northern Ireland himself, and I wonder how much of his own experiences are invested in the excellent job he has done of creating our Israel Armstrong. As the blurb says, Israel is an intelligent, shy, passionate, sensitive sort of soul: he’s Jewish; he’s a vegetarian; he could maybe do with losing a little weight.” This is how Israel sees himself, and to be fair, it’s a pretty accurate summary. But when he’s not wondering where his next espresso is coming from, or what on Earth the locals are actually saying, or why his girlfriend isn’t phoning him or returning his calls, he seems a nice enough sort. A perfect example of a librarian, but no action man. Still, he does what he can to recover the missing books, and treads on all sorts of toes while he’s at it.

Sansom’s prose is brilliant. Simple and seemingly effortless – an incredibly difficult style to do right. As a reader I had a vivid picture of Tumdrum in my head and each character seemed entirely real. I loved how he took the time to look about. And Sansom is definitely the king of the long sentence. It’s not that he’s guilty of superfluous writing – he simply likes to take a little time to impress upon the reader a very definite thought, feeling or image. And fair play to him, because it works so sickeningly well.

And then there’s the humour. Mostly it’s in the form of Israel’s bumbling while attempting to acclimatise to his new surroundings. However, some of the locals are just wickedly funny. Take Ted, the mobile library driver. This is your typical Northern Irish hard man approaching his autumn years. He’s getting old enough to mellow out a little, but not so old that you can relax too much around him. In fact, he threatens to blacken Israel’s eye the first night they meet. But he’s also the source of many laugh-out-loud moments through deadpan dialogue and old school wisdom.

The Case of the Missing Books is a fantastic introduction to The Mobile Library series. As a recurring character, Israel Armstrong could well become one of my favourites. By the time I get through the next two, I’ll know for sure.

Mr Bateman? Sir? You better watch out for this Ian Sansom fellow. He’s a serious contender for the NI Comedy Crime Writer crown.


Michael Stone said...

I hadn't heard of Ian Sansom till I read about him on CSNI, now he's on my wish-list.So many books to read, so little time.

I wonder if our librarian friend Joel knows about these books? I think he'd be tickled.

Gerard Brennan said...

Mike - You really need to make room for this one. I think you'll really dig the humour.

And you're right. This would be right up Joel's avenue, wouldn't it?