Ian Sansom is droll in the tradition of Flann O'Brien, but his whimsy only teeters on the surreal, and his writing owes at least as much to Jerome K Jerome. And he is his own man. Ring Road, his first novel, was set, like his new one, in Antrim - Sansom is an Englishman who lives in Northern Ireland. He is a poet of the joyfully run-down seaside town, a gentle satirist in love with most of his characters, their foibles, and their innocence - innocence that often turns out to disguise a highly literate culture.
When Sansom's new alter ego, the would-be librarian Israel Armstrong, is teamed up with Ted, the bullying local taxi-driver, Armstrong tries a smart remark about Dante's Inferno. Ted replies idly that Carson's translation is much better than those of Sinclair or Sayers, adding: "What do you think a driver does on a mobile library when they're not out driving, read The Sun?"
The Case of the Missing Books is a mystery, a sustained piece of slapstick, a meditation and a yarn. And it is cripplingly funny. Israel is a Jewish Londoner, half-Irish by birth, agreeably bookish, vegetarian, addicted to Nurofen, and an innocent who discovers that his job as librarian of Tumdrum is a fiction. The council has shut the library, and set him up to go on the road with a clapped-out van. His second setback is that the library's 15,000 books have gone missing. Incensed, he sets out to find them.
Sansom uses Israel's clueless sleuthing to send him chasing some very wild geese; in the process, we are taken on a guided tour of the quirky community. In bars, cafés, farms, shops and churches, we meet a wonderful cast of mildly eccentric ironists, at odds with one another, but nearly all in cahoots against authority. There are hucksters and swindlers, wags and windbags, people bereaved by bombs, people blessed with canny and uncanny insights.
Israel is mocked and mothered in equal measure. The regulations are ridiculous, the people resilient and warm, blessed with backchat that Sansom turns into terrific dialogue. He enjoys himself, as in Ring Road, with impossibly long sentences that leave you gasping for breath, largely because you've been laughing while you follow them.
Do not drink a beverage, of any description, while reading The Case of the Missing Books. You'll just end up spilling it.
Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' is published by Cinnamon in April
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