By Ian Sansom
Harper. 352 pp. $12.95
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Reviewed by Jen A. Miller
Israel Armstrong is not your typical mystery hero. He's overweight, clumsy, and not even funny - at least not intentionally. He doesn't have a glamorous day job or detective agency, let alone an office on Baker Street. He's a librarian. Sometimes. When he can find work.
Ian Sansom's The Case of the Missing Books isn't your typical mystery, either. It's a wild romp through the Irish countryside where our antihero searches for truth, but there's no murder to be solved, no smoking gun - just 15,000 missing books.
Pushed by his girlfriend, Gloria, whom we see only in the same way we see the adults in Peanuts cartoons, Armstrong moves to Ireland so he can break out of his dead-end job at a discount bookstore to do what he went to school for - be a librarian. Turns out he's left one dead end for another. The library in Tumdrum and District is no more. It's been shut down for budgetary reasons. Instead, Armstrong is meant to run a mobile library by driving a ramshackle, rusted bus full of books and holes, making regular stops around town so people can browse, borrow and return. There's a problem with this scenario, too: The books have been stolen from the library.
Tied down by an unbreakable contract, Armstrong, a Jewish vegetarian who never quite fits in with the natives, is forced to find the missing books. And even if he never gets it quite right, his journey through this cartoon land of ridiculousness is a delight.
The book is a bit of a farce - after all, who houses the new librarian in a chicken coop? But it's a delightful one, even more so because Armstrong can be such a pathetic character, the human equivalent of a wet rag: "Stripped of his money, his clothes, his dignity, unable to understand what people were talking about half the time, unwilling to eat the food, forced to be doing a job he didn't want to do, and threatened, beaten, and in a state of some uncertainty, confusion and tension, he was now really enjoying the full immigrant experience: This was what it must have been like for his ancestors and relatives who'd made it to Bethnal Green and to America. No wonder they all looked so bloody miserable in the photographs."
The only place Armstrong feels at home is a library. Stripped of that sanctuary in a strange country with very strange people, he's set up for disaster.
Armstrong may be a bit of a sap, but Sansom draws the book's supporting cast bright and sharp to form a beautiful contrast. The book is full of snappy, almost vaudevillian "Who's on First" conversations, which are both funny and keep the reader feeling alienated along with Armstrong. After all, the people of Tumdrum and District and Armstrong are so different that the cultural disparity sets up a running joke without really being offensive to any particular group - not even when Sansom is forced to wear T-shirts with highly inappropriate slogans after his landlord burns his clothes by accident.
The Case of the Missing Books promises to be the first of a Mobile Library Mystery series, and Sansom introduces characters and plot lines that aren't neatly tied up at the end, even if the mystery is. Wouldn't you want to know more about the South African clergyman who has a thirst for true-crime books, or about the former model who now runs a cafe? Or the pleasant old man who has signed copies of books by T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce but doesn't think they're worth much because the books are so old?
This first entry in the series is so well written that it begs you to follow the characters on to their next great - or not so great - adventure. By that time, perhaps Armstrong will have found his way out of the chicken coop.