Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review of The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Samson (Harper Perennial, 2005)


Israel Armstrong has managed to secure a post as a librarian in a small, rural community on the North Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.  Bookish, naïve, social awkward, Jewish and vegetarian, he’s a fish out of water.  When he arrives he finds the library has been closed and he’s been reassigned to drive the mobile library, an old van that has been mothballed for a few years.  To add to his woes, his living quarters is a chicken coup at an isolated farm, his boss is spiky and manipulative, and the previous librarian and mobile van driver are hostile.  To make matters much worse though is the fact that the libraries 15,000 books are missing, but the local authority doesn’t want to tell anyone for fear of ridicule.  Unless he can track them all down without the aid of the police, running any kind of service is going to be all but impossible.  But when you’re in a strange place, with its own odd ways, hunting for stolen loot is anything but straightforward.

The Case of the Missing Books
is effectively a cozy set in Northern Ireland.  It has a quirky, awkward, central character as the sleuth and a cast of other colourful characters, and it takes place in a small town where everybody knows everybody else.  The central plot revolves around Armstrong trying to find his feet in a strange place, where the locals are at one level welcoming and, at another, standoffish, whilst he tries to locate the missing books.  It’s one of those books that I’m kind of ambivalent about.  It passed a few pleasant hours, but did not set the world alight.  The plot is relatively straightforward and there is a gentle humour throughout, though no real belly-laughs; a kind of Last of the Summer Wine sitcom/farce vibe.  My one real problem was that I found it difficult to believe in Israel Armstrong as a character.  There were a few things that didn’t add-up.  On the one hand he’s been a compulsive reader since a young child and he knows about books, and yet what’s in those books barely seems to have penetrated his skull.  His bookishness and educational attainment didn’t quite sit right. And in general terms he's blessed with about every negative trait going, with few social skills or powers of deduction, and yet somehow he bumbles through whilst offending just about everybody at some point.  Overall, if you’re a cozy fan then this might appeal.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Thanks, as always, for this review. You've hit on something that can really make a novel work well, or can work against a novel - a believable protagonist. You're right that if the protagonist isn't believable and doesn't have many redeeming qualities, that takes away from a book.