Sunday, February 12, 2006

Scenes from provincial life

'Twelve GCSEs!' said Minnie, marvelling.

'I thought it was thirteen?' said Zelda.

'Hang on,' said Israel. 'How did you know that?'

'It was in the paper,' said Minnie. 'Now tell me this: d'you really no' have hobbies and interests apart from reading? You must have some, eh, young fella like yourself?'


'It was all in the paper.'

'What, my whole CV?'

'Yes. Of course,' said Minnie. 'People have the right to know about their new librarian. It's like public office. You were definitely the best candidate, wasn't he, Zelda?'

Zelda was looking Israel up and down in a manner that clearly indicated that she did not believe him to be the best at anything.

'Head an' shoulders,' continued Minnie.

'They published my CV in the local paper?' said Israel.

'Not just yours.'

All my favourite hacks seem to have started in on serial detective fiction. The gentle, old-fashioned sort.

First there was Andrew Martin, a former holder of the coveted "only good thing in the New Statesman" title, who has begun an Edwardian-set "Steam Detective" series -- well-chosen social history, leisurely but cleverly tightening pace, and just a bit too much technical railway information for the comfort of normal readers.

Now there's Ian Sansom, the really, really, really stylish book reviewer. He has begun a series set in present day rural Northern Ireland, under the group title "The Mobile Library", the first volume of which, The Case of the Missing Books, is quoted above. If you were lost, Israel is a north London nebbish, newly arrived as librarian for the town of Tumdrum to find the library is shut and the stock has all disappeared; Zelda and Minnie run what's now his local cafe. Without ever quite uncovering anything, he will reach a solution that allows him to stay in town for the next of the series.

All this must be a side-effect of Alexander McCall Smith. Suddenly there is an attractive and apparently saleable model for not-quite-big-name writers: you leave a mystery simmering in the corner, to satisfy the sales department, and then you go off and spend the next seven chapters writing what you wanted to in the first place. In time, the mystery readers will discover they prefer it.

Now, I'm in favour of any literary gimmick that keeps Ian Sansom solvent. And as should be evident from the quote, The Case of the Missing Books is funny. It's also all-in-one-sitting readable. It treads a fine line between gentleness and plotlessness, and I'm not sure it lands the right side, but perhaps that will improve as the series goes along. I shall be depressed if such a good comic writer turns out only to be saleable as an about-average producer of crime novels.

No comments: