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Ian Sansom mysteries

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, June 2010; written by Lisa Pearson.

If you’ve browsed around the shelves of the library, you will have noticed that the word “mystery” encompasses a fair range of reading material. From serial-killers spattering gore to introspective criminal investigators dealing with their own personal demons to matronly women sipping tea and tracking down lost dogs, mystery novels present readers with a diverse experience. Once you’ve seen that green mystery sticker on the spine of the book, the trick is figuring out how intense a story lies inside.

I’ve recently been enjoying a new series that could be placed over in the ‘tea and lost dogs’ end of the spectrum. Ian Samson’s Mobile Library series is very similar to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series written by Alexander McCall Smith, in that it is really a story about characters rather than events. There are no dead bodies or violent assaults, no drive-by shootings or missing jewels. Rather, there is an out-of-place librarian trying to deal with lousy weather, isolation, small-town life and the reality of operating a mobile library (the British version of a bookmobile).

Israel Armstrong is a Jewish vegetarian librarian from London who has ended up in the tiny hamlet of Tumdrum, Northern Ireland. Unlike most novels set in this region, there is no mention of the Troubles or the IRA. There is, however, talk of rain, bad coffee, rain, fatty food, rain and chatty shopkeepers. Tumdrum is not so very unlike Ketchikan: the pace is slow, eccentric characters thrive, it’s impossible to keep secrets, and idealistic newcomers are looked upon with an amused tolerance.

Israel Armstrong is as idealistic as his natural pessimism allows, and his plans for being “an adept, like a country priest guiding his grateful parishioners into the mysteries of the holy realms of the book” crumble when they come up against his down-to-earth and somewhat unimaginative Irish patrons. Israel begins to feel disgruntled about his life a few months after arriving in Tumdrum, and his constant peevishness is the thread that ties the entire series together. His imperturbable fellow librarian, Ted, has no trouble blowing off Israel’s mutterings and complaints and keeping him on task.

When Israel is wallowing in self-pity after his long-distance love breaks off their relationship, Ted hauls him out of bed. When Israel insists that he’s going to hand in his resignation to their boss Linda, “Tumdrum’s only Chinese Catholic single lesbian parent”, Ted counters that “It wasnae a bad morning”. Ted is the voice of reason and pragmatism, and he is slowly wearing away at Israel’s determination to make the rest of Tumdrum fit his vision of how things should be done.

The most recent book in the Mobile Library series is “The Bad Book Affair”, and it involves local politics, a missing teenager, and the lurking threat to ban certain books from the mobile library van. You don’t have to be a librarian to appreciate the humor in these books, but anyone familiar with small town life will get a laugh out of Israel’s inability to relax and accept his new life. Although there are some intermittent profanities (we are talking about the Irish, here), the story is mellow enough that fans of Alexander McCall Smith would enjoy this series as well.

If you picked up tickets to see Jeff Brown, the balloon magician, don’t forget that his performances are this Saturday at 11 am and 2 pm. This is one of the first events in the summer schedule, so there is still plenty of time to register for Reading Club. We have three different clubs – little kids, elementary and teen – so everyone can participate and earn great prizes!

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