There are the hard-boiled detectives who stalk the pages of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. There are the rational logicians who look to their little grey cells while traveling on the Orient Express or breakfasting at Baker Street. There are the disillusioned police officials, the scientific sleuths, the highbrow elites playing sometimes seriously, sometimes not, at police work. And of course there is the amateur detective: the rabbi who takes time out from his preaching to find killers, the crime fiction writer more adept at solving crimes than any detective she creates, the rare book specialist, the forensic psychologist, the elderly spinster, and so on.
It is to this latter group that Israel Armstrong, the somewhat anti-hero of Ian Sansom's Mobile Library Mystery series, belongs. An English, Jewish, vegetarian librarian working on a mobile library in a small village in Northern Ireland, Armstrong is as unlikely a crime solving candidate as any amateur sleuth in the pantheon.
As The Bad Book Affair, the fourth in the Mobile Library series begins, Israel is in a depressive funk. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday. He has been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, and feeling the proverbial fish out of water stuck in the Irish backwater, humdrum Tumdrum. Not only is Armstrong an amateur, he is something of nebbish, the Yiddish equivalent of the naïf who always seems to be saying and doing the wrong thing, is constantly being taken advantage of, and never seems to have a clue. Although, in this case, Israel Armstrong is one nebbish who despite his inadequacies manages to get it right in the end.
As mysteries go, The Bad Book Affair is rather innocuous. If you're looking for murder and mayhem, this is the wrong book. The actual problem doesn’t even show its face until a hundred or so pages have passed, and even then it isn't a problem that is going to compete with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What we've got here is no violent whodunit, but fairly gentle what-happened. In fact, Sansom, it would seem, is much less interested in any crime plot than he is in character, tone, and style.
The book is filled with as quirky a cast of characters as you'd be likely to find in even a Dickens novel. There is Ted, Israel's co-worker at the library, who doesn't seem to have a last name, and who doses Israel with commonsensical prescriptions that more often than not make absolutely no sense. He speaks homespun words of wisdom in a language all his own. "What's the point of having a dog and barking yerself, eh?" He invents words: "deedlin'," as in if you were driving, you'd be "deedlin'." "Jandies," as in "Ye give me the jandies."