Israel Armstrong: Bumbling Mobile Librarian, Amateur Detective and Londoner in Northern Ireland

I haven’t read many cozy mysteries, but I think I might just have been charmed back into the genre.  For my book club this month we read The Case of the Missing Books, the first installment in Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library Mystery series. 

Israel Armstrong, an Englishman in his late twenties, is trained as a librarian yet has never had more than a short-term employment contract in any library.  This also means that he has very little money to his name.  Therefore, when he arrives in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in response to an offer of employment as a librarian, only to find that the library has been closed and that he will instead be the “Outreach Support Officer” of the mobile library (basically a beat-up van), the only thing that convinces him to try it for a while is a promise from his new boss to pay for his travel home to England.

Israel quickly discovers that the 15,000 items in the mobile library’s collection are in fact missing.  Tasked by his supervisor with finding these materials, he comes up with and follows up on several wrong hypotheses and eventually is forced to request the assistance of a local taxi driver and friend of the mobile library, a man whom Israel had slightly alienated on his first day in town.   In the course of his search for the missing items, Israel meets many of the residents and business owners of the county, some reticent and curt and others warm and welcoming.  He witnesses the striking Northern Irish vistas of sea and sky, the residential evidence of economic hardship and the occasional surprise of a lovely garden or cup of espresso where they are least expected.  Although not focused on at length, the casualties of political upheaval are mentioned now and again; many in the county have lost relatives or have been injured themselves in bombings.

The Case of the Missing Books is a light and very enjoyable mystery with an identifiable main character who, while not always astute, really tries his best to “give it a go”, growing on the reader in the process.  The novel’s setting is quite distinct and County Antrim is an actual place in Northern Ireland which you can learn about on the Antrim Borough Council’s Web site.  I recommend the Mobile Library Mystery series to those who’ve enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books.  Both depict the atmosphere of a particular place quite memorably and with much humor, acquainting us with down-to-earth amateur sleuths who are learning as they go, as most of us would need to do if plunged into similar situations.  For fun and a little armchair travel, “catch yourself on” and pick up The Case of the Missing Books.  For your further reading, in March 2013 one of my fellow bloggers provided a great list of mysteries involving libraries and books.

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