The Case of the Missing Books, a different sort of mystery by Ian Sansom
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
Northern Ireland crime fiction