New York: Harper Perennial, 2006
The second in The Mobile Library series of mysteries by Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears is full of misanthropic charm and bookish goodness. The titular mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, BA (Hons), is disenchanted:
He was sick of the excuses and lies. He was tired of the evasions and the untruths, of people refusing to stand up and speak the truth and take responsibility for their own actions. It seemed to him like yet another symptom of the decline of Western civilization; of chaos; and climate change; and environmental disaster; and war; disease; famine; oppression; the eternal slow slide down and down and down. It was entropy, nemesis, apotheosis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners all rolled into one.
People were not returning their library books on time.
And if that’s not bad enough, hapless Israel finds himself arrested for the disappearance of department store proprietor, Mr. Dixon, and 100,000 pounds from the store safe. When he wakes in jail, he faces a dark night of the reader’s soul: there is nothing to read, and, worse, he begins to doubt the very value of reading:
Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel. He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn’t make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.
Things improve marginally for Israel once he’s sprung from jail and can investigate the mystery himself, but he still finds himself woefully short of reading material. He reluctantly picks up a murder mystery from the shelf of the room into which he’s had to decamp:
He’d never read a lot of crime fiction before; it was the covers, mostly, that put him off. He was very anti-embossing.
I’m anti-embossing, too! Mr. Dixon Disappears has no embossing on its cover, and on its insides, it’s a fairly meandering sort of a mystery; it’s wry and clever about books and bookish enthusiasm gone wrong. The mystery plot never really grabbed me, however, so it’s not a book to come to if you want a good mystery with which to wrestle.
I read the first in Sansom’s new series of County Guides Mysteries last week, The Norfolk Mystery, and it felt a bit flat. There was a lot of setting up of the series to come, I think, so I’m glad that I started with the second in the Mobile Library series. I will go back for more non-embossed helpings.