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Published: Sunday, 1/28/2007

Offbeat librarian is the heart of an engaging new mystery series


THE CASE OF THE MISSING BOOKS: A MOBILE LIBRARY MYSTERY. By Ian Sansom. Harper. 326 pages. $12.95.

Meet Israel Armstrong.

He s a first-time librarian.

But there s a problem: The library he is supposed to work in has been closed all the books are missing. And it s Israel s job to find them. But Columbo he isn t.

Oh, and one more thing: Israel is soon reassigned to be the mobile librarian.

In The Case of the Missing Books: A Mobile Library Mystery (the first in a series), Northern Irish writer Ian Sansom introduces us to a wonderful lead character in Israel Armstrong. He s pudgy, frumpy, a little boorish, and bookish. Well, of course, he s bookish, he s a librarian ... from North London, sent to work in a small Northern Ireland town. Israel also is a Jew in a country polarized by Christian faiths.

He has a big mountain to climb.

He s ready to live his dream of becoming a proper librarian, but he never thought he d find himself in the Irish countryside in a backward little farm town called Tumdrum.

And because 15,000 books are missing, Israel gets to meet many of the citizens of Tumdrum, starting with Ted Carson, owner and operator of Ted s Cabs. Ted s also the driver of the mobile library. And he s prime suspect No. 1, because along with Israel s boss, Linda Wei (prime suspect No. 2), Ted has one of two sets of keys to the closed library.

When Israel isn t accusing the people he works with of theft, he s doing his best to get acquainted with his new living situation, in a chicken coop on the Devine farm with Granda, the religious zealot; know-it-all Brownie, and the strong-minded George, short for Georgina.

Sansom, a newcomer to the crime fiction scene, proves adept at handling dialogue, especially choppy, Hugh Grant-ish hem-and-haw banter:

The boy here prefers books to proper work, said the old man, nodding at Brownie.

Right, said Israel, struggling to find some possible change of subject, his agricultural chat having proved predictably inadequate. Are you a student then?

Yep, agreed Brownie, proffering a T-shirt, trousers, socks, and a towel.

Thanks. What are you studying?

Philosophy actually.

Oh right. My goodness. Very Good. Where?


Oh really? I was at Oxford.

Wow. What college?

It was the, er, other place actually.


Oxford Brookes.

Oh, right. Is that the old poly?

Yes. Yes, it is ...

His conversational style and rhythm, as well as his comic relief, have drawn comparisons to English writer Nick Hornby, and that s some pretty hefty company. Sansom certainly lives up to the billing.

Missing Books might be a love it or hate it kind of book for some, because not a lot happens there isn t much to do in Tumdrum. So, there really isn t a who-done-it build-up to the mystery.

However, there certainly is plot development, and it s character-driven. And here Sansom shines.

Israel goes looking for Ted at the First and Last pub, where he gets barred for ordering mineral water, and after a reprieve gets barred again for getting drunk on shots.

Israel also falls for the seductions of Veronica Byrd, a reporter for the Impartial Recorder who uses him to get a scoop.

But Israel will get used to having his name in print; at least that s what the Reverend Roberts tells him.

The Reverend from Africa s first name is England. Israel is from England and England is from Africa. Got it? Good.

Scenes like these allow us to laugh at Israel and get a peek inside his character, and we start to feel for him. With each bump and bruise, both physical and emotional, we like Israel more. And so does Tumdrum.

So, whether Israel ever solves the crime or not, he is on the road to discovery, albeit in a rusty mobile library in need of a lick of paint.

Contact Bob Cunningham at: bcunningham@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.

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