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."
Linda Wie is Israel's jargon-spouting Chinese lesbian boss. Maurice Morris is an adulterous politician looking to get back into the government. There is a landlady named George, well on the way it seems to being a new love interest for Israel, and she is complemented by a Bible-spouting fire-and-brimstone grandfather. There is a freethinking Presbyterian minister and a breakaway charismatic leader. It is these characters and Armstrong's interaction with them, rather than the somewhat piddling mystery that serves for plot, that is the central interest of the novel.
In general the tone of the book is satirical. Like a naïve Candide, Israel wanders through his world bumping into all sorts of behavior worthy of censure and ridicule: from a doctor who has no interest in his patients to a fish and chips Bible quiz, from a hidden shelf of "bad" books to be kept out of sight of impressionable youth to a teenage Wikipedia editor who has no knowledge of what he is editing. Sansom pokes fun at religion, politics, literary icons like Harry Potter, artistic pretension, vegetarianism, journalism, and almost anything else you can think of.
He likes the occasional play on words: a restaurant is called the Thai Tanic. Someone comes into the library and asks to borrow the De Saurus, the book with words. All books have words, Israel tells him. As a stylistic matter, it's the kind of thing that either makes you chuckle or makes you groan. Me? I chuckle. He also infuses his prose with allusions, both classical and modern, literary and pop. So at the novel's opening, Israel in his depression is reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Later he reads from Madame Bovary to his dying friend. He talks about his ideal of living in a Brooklyn brownstone like Paul Auster and asks, "Who cares about Five People You Meet in Heaven with Morrie?" He has Romanians upset because people don't know Ionesco. Meanwhile, he clearly knows his readers will be sure to recognize Grand Theft Auto, Dawson's Creek, Buffy, Lurch, and Morticia. When it comes to allusion, eclecticism is the rule.
The Bad Book Affair is a whimsical entertainment that never hesitates to take potshots at a good many modern targets, and more often than not hits the bullseye.