Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Case of the Missing Books, a different sort of mystery by Ian Sansom

I don't know what sorts of movies Ian Sansom watched in the early 1980s, but I'd bet Local Hero was one of them.

In that 1983 Bill Forsyth film, an oil billionaire sends a hotshot young executive to buy up a Scottish village where the oil company wants to build a refinery. Young hotshot is smitten with the village, billionaire with the sky above it, and all ends happily except, perhaps, for the young hotshot, who returns to America and longingly recalls his time in the village as a highlight of his life.

The Case of the Missing Books follows a similar course, except its version of the hotshot — a bedraggled young librarian named Israel Armstrong — stays on, and he and the village grow to embrace one another, if somewhat awkwardly. Armstrong has arrived in Tumdrum, County Antrim, Northern Ireland to take over as librarian for Tumdrum and District. Only the person who is supposed to meet Armstrong fails to show up, the library has closed, and his new job is to staff a mobile library van. Oh yes, and all the books have disappeared.

In short order, Israel loses his clothes, his money and his credit cards. A vegetarian, he struggles to find nourishing food he can eat, not to mention a good cup of coffee. He has trouble understanding the villagers' thick accents and odd expressions, and he gets punched in the eye when he inadvertently spies on a pair of lovers. Beset on all sides, he agrees to stay just long enough to flesh out his résumé and earn enough money to return to London.

His supervisor, as shameless a liar and as fatuous a sugar-coater as my — that is, as any corporate shill, assures Israel that "it is important for the borough to continue to provide information resources with a high service proposition combined with increased competitive flexibility." She also assigns him the unwanted job of finding the missing books and, oddly enough, Israel finds he enjoys the role of sleuth. Only most of his guesses are wrong, and just a few of the 15,000 missing books turn up.

The books do materialize eventually and, like any good mystery, this one has its villain. But the solution comes about not through any discoveries on Israel's part, but only once the villagers have come to trust him. I'll reveal no more except that not only does Israel eventually agree to stay on, he even gets a vegetarian feast. In short, this is less a mystery than an engaging fish-out-of-water story. Lurking within is a ruefully humorous and compassionate message:

"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."
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Seems like an interesting book. I like it a lot when the detective-fiction genre is used beyond detection to explore other themes. The first so-called detective-story Sophocles' Oedipus Rex did that, and how! Another favourite is Dickens's Bleak House (which, as you probably know, Agatha Christie was once planning to re-write in a more conventional detective-story format).
I loved the resonance of the protagonist's name, Israel, esp. in connection with the immigrant theme.

June 10, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Intreguing review. Local Hero is one of my favourite films -- not so long ago I forced my children to sit through it but they didn't really "get" it, they are too modern.
Among many other gems, I was struck by the strength of the environmentalist message: plus ca change.
I'll certainly have to put this book on my list, which means that my post-Crime fest resolution to list no more books to read in light of all the freebies and recommendations from there, lasted about 24 hours. Gee, thanks, Peter.

June 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sucharita, you might enjoy a series of posts I made about such proto-crime stories as Hamlet, Macbeth, Susanna and the Elders and so on. Oedipus Rex quite naturally came up in one of the comments.

Yes, the protagonist's name resonates for the reason you suggest, though the author has a remarkably light touch.

This book was the first novel in what has become a series. Its relative lack of sleuthing set against the expectation that there would be more of it was one of the book's subtle comic delights. I will be eager to see what Ian Sansom had Israel do in subsequent books.

June 10, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, I am pleased I was able to help break your resolve. I have not seen Local Hero since its initial U.S. release. I suppose I can imagine youngsters today not getting it because the characters don't use cell phones.

Wait, that's cheap. Perhaps your children didn't get the movie not because they're too modern, but because they're too young. I seem to recall much about slowing down the pace of one's life, looking up at the stars and all sorts of themes that just might not have much resonance with teens or pre-teens. I don't know how old your children are now, but perhaps you could have them sit through the film again in a few years and see what they think then.

June 10, 2008  
Blogger Satyeki said...

i thought that you wouldn't mind if i do barge into your blog, i did chance upon it and find it quite interesting , i will get back to you as soon as i complete reading the rest.

yours truly
Hercule Poirot

June 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I thank you for dropping in!

June 11, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I've come across stories like that. Non-mystery mysteries.

I recently read "361" by Donald E. Westlake, which was a solid mystery by all accounts, but took liberties to veer into self-reflection, borderline spiritual passages and existential questioning on the protagonist's part. I guess it all fit though.

Anyway, this book seems interesting. I'm going to add the other one you mentioned, the Spider one from a previous blog (I forget the name) to my reading list.

June 13, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Patience of the Spider"

June 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, that's a perceptive reading of 361 that no doubt would make Westlake happy. Here's what he said about the book:

"THIS WAS A VERY early novel, and the first one in which I did any experimenting. There were writers I admired -- Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov, Peter Rabe -- who could do something I very much envied, which was to make you feel the emotion in a scene without ever referring to it directly. It all roils below the surface while the surface remains apparently calm. In 361, I set out to learn if I could do that. I enjoyed the process and enjoyed the result, and I find I still do."

June 13, 2008  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I just bought this book at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Then checked DBB to see if you had mentioned it in the past, closer to its publication date. It was on a "Hanukkah gift suggestions" table at TMB and it cheered this old librarian's heart to see its charming, clever cover (before I knew anything about its contents). With your avowed fondness for N Ireland I thought of you immediately! I've often thought it would be fun to drive a bookmobile around in the semi-rural area where my parents live, for ex.

TMB has all sorts of clever ideas for build-your-own / select their pre-packed "crime lovers' gift baskets" and buyers can mix and match titles. Complete baskets include such cute add-ons as a fleece blanket and hot cocoa for the Scandinavian crime fiction gift basket (add aquavit and some Berliner Kranser cookies!). I'm not very imaginative when it comes to this kind of stuff but seeing their displays has given me all sorts of ideas.

Here's another nifty gifty I purchased. Have you seen Hard-boiled Mysteries: A Quiz Deck?

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That deck looks like fun. I'm not sure I'd have been able to guess the answer to the James M. Cain question.

Ian Sansom is a pleasant bloke by all accounts, and I had the occasion to discover that he has a sharp ear for Northern Ireland speech patterns. (I didn't hear Ian Sansom, but I did ride in a taxi in Country Tyrone whose driver spoke like a Sansom character. I made a post on the subject, should you care to look for it.)

December 09, 2010  

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