The Case of the Missing Books
by Ian Sansom
Published by Harper
rating: 4 out of 5
A good friend of mine went to Denver in early December. I told her I was quite jealous, as she might have the chance to visit the Tattered Cover, a phenomenal bookstore that I will someday visit and spend hours. Well, she did have the opportunity to go and told me that it is truly as wonderful as I have envisioned, but to make me feel not quite so melancholy - she brought me back this lovely little book (complete with several Tattered Cover bookmarks that I can use until I actually have a chance to go there myself). She bought the book because she loved the cover, but confessed she knew nothing about the author nor the storyline (side note --- have you ever done that? Bought a book for the cover alone? I must confess that I am very much influenced by cover art and have done this on more than one occasion).
Anyway...I digress. I was unfamiliar with the book as well, but was so pleased with her unexpected gift that I started reading it the very next day.
Oh my -- what a delightful little mystery, with several quirky characters who are as enamored with books as I am. Here is the summary from the back cover:
Israel Armstrong is a passionate soul, lured to Ireland by the promise of an exciting new career. Alas, the job that awaits him is not quite what he had in mind. Still, Israel is not one to dwell on disappointment, as he prepares to drive a mobile library around a small, damp Irish town. After all, the scenery is lovely, the people are charming - but where are the books? The rolling library's 15,000 volumes have mysteriously gone missing, and it's up to Israel to discover who would steal them....and why. And perhaps, after that, he will tackle other bizarre and perplexing local mysteries - like, where does one go to find a proper cappuccino and a decent newspaper?
Israel Armstrong is a very unlikely hero. He is a twenty-something year old graduate who has landed his first librarian job (up until this point he was working in a large London bookstore - still a bibliophilic job, but not what he was trained to do). Israel is rather overweight, lacking a few social graces, and definitely a "city slicker" compared to the inhabitants of the obscure little village. When he discovers that the job is not at all what he envisioned, he reluctantly decides to stay for just a couple of weeks to get the library up and running. The problem is that the library is closed, and the building is empty. The van that is to be used for the mobile library is old and decrepit, and not at all prepared to carry 15,000 books across the county -- if they can ever find the missing books. It is Israel's responsibility to find the (even though he was not the librarian when they apparently went missing) and he does not have much support from the locals. They do not trust this outsider, and he is suspicious of everyone he meets.
While this book is not meant to be a great literary accomplishment - a humorous escape is more the way I would describe it - the author obviously loves books and uses several opportunities to share that love with us:
He began properly unpacking the rest of his belongings from his old brown suitcase....it was books mostly, some clean underwear, and then more books, and books, and books, and books, the ratio of books to underwear being about 20:1, book being really the great constant and companion in Israel's life; they were always there for you, books, like a small pet dog that doesn't die; they weren't like people; they weren't treacherous or unreliable and they didn't work late at the office on important projects or go skiing with their friends at Christmas. Since childhood Israel had been tormented by a terrible fear of being caught somewhere and having no books with him to read, a terrible prospect which had been realized only two occasions..." (page 116)
Israel had grown up in and around libraries. Libraries were where he belonged. Libraries to Israel had always been a constant. In libraries Israel had always known calm and peace; in libraries he'd always seemed to be able to breathe a little easier. When he walked through the doors of a library it was like entering a sacred space, like the Holy of Holies: the beautiful hush and the shunting of the brass-handled wooden drawers holding the card catalogues, the reassurance of the reference books and the eminent OEDs, the amusing little troughs of children's books; all human life was there, and you could borrow it and take it home for two weeks at a time, nine books per person per card." (page 11-12)
I must admit that my favorite part of this book was the author's ability to write dialog. The quick banter between Israel and several of the townspeople reminded me of the old Bruce Willis - Cybil Shepherd television series, Moonlighting. Did you ever watch that show? Sometimes I felt as though I was watching a tennis match, as the fast-paced one liners would volley back and forth between the characters. This is exactly how I felt as I read this book. This kind of quick-witted barb back and forth makes for very easy reading.
This book is more humor than mystery - but I think that is what I needed when I picked it up. There were times that I would laugh out loud at the comical situations in which Israel found himself, and in the end, I felt as though I had a met a few literary friends. I was thrilled when I learned that there are actually two more books in this series, Mr. Dixon Disappears and The Book Stops Here. I have the second one on reserve at the library and I hope that perhaps I can find time during the mystery read-athon to pick up where I left off.