Thursday, April 30, 2009

THE CASE OF THE MISSING BOOKS by IAN SANSOM


As The Case of the Missing Books begins, Israel Armstrong has arrived in Northern Ireland to take up the position of librarian for the small town of Tumdrum, only to find that the library has been closed. Israel, who considers himself something of a sophisticate, is floored; after making an uncomfortable journey from London, the last leg of which was a ferry trip "full of Scots and Irish and possibly Scots-Irish lorry-drivers, men profoundly pale of colour and generous of figure, men possessed of huge appetites and apparently unquenchable thirst..." he learns that the job he's spent his whole life preparing for ("Israel had grown up in and around libraries. Libraries were where he belonged.") doesn't exist and that he is, instead, to be in charge of the district's mobile library. Or rather, as the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services corrects him, the "mobile learning centre."

Israel is sent off in quest of the bookmobile itself, and then (after receiving a black eye at the hands of a local school administrator) is taken to his temporary lodging at a local farm. There, he is set up in the chicken coop.

The next day adds mystery to the insult and injury he has already suffered in Tumdrum when Israel discovers that the library has been emptied of the 15,000 volumes which were meant to stock the bookmobile--ah, mobile learning centre--and that it is his responsibility to recover them. He spends the next 250 or so pages stumbling around, getting injured, alienating people, and drinking bad coffee.

The mystery premise of The Case of the Missing Books is lovely, and the characters and countryside are brimming with potential. It reads too little like a mystery, however, and too much like an awkward homage to Cold Comfort Farm, one of the funniest books ever written. Unfortunately, Ian Sansom is not the craftsman that Stella Gibbons was. Where the humor in Cold Comfort Farm comes from the clash of cultures and the real menace given off by the characters, who all seem to be in on something about which the heroine is completely ignorant, The Case of the Missing Books just reads like a fish-out-of-water tale in which barely a single character has any depth or interest. The book did gain momentum toward the end, and although by that point it was too late to redeem this volume it did bode well for further installments of the Mobile Library Series.

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