NATIONAL LIBRARIES DAY – February 6th
Before we start there are more important things to think about than my glib comments about better writers than me. This Saturday is National Libraries Day here in the UK; the day to celebrate all that libraries mean to us, our families, and our communities. if you haven’t been in for a bit drop in on Saturday and join in their events, have a look round or just say hello and show your support for a vital service under threat from politicians and others who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. In my local library Hermitage FM the radio station on which I present shows will be there all day as they have been for the past few years so if you can’t make your own library tune into 99.2FM if you live in the East Midlands or go along to our website and listen there.
“Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal”
Right back to normal now after that important announcement and a brief period of self indulgent self enjoyment over the festive season and after a trip to Hong Kong to see our daughter so where was I. Ah yes I seem to recall that I had shared with you my barely formed ideas for a novel about a librarian sleuth only to find I had been beaten to it by former librarian Veronica Stallword and her character Kate Ivory. What I failed to mention was that as someone who enjoyed good humorous writing it did lead me to think albeit briefly about a comic librarian sleuth not a combination of words you find very often mainly because when I say briefly I mean that it only took a few nanoseconds to realise what a spectacularly stupid idea this was so I went back to researching librarians in literature.
This was when I discovered the writing of Ian Sansom a journalist and novelist with as far as I can see no previous convictions for librarianship.
Irish literature is rich in comic invention. I have read Flann O’ Brian’s The Third Policeman and thought Spike Milligan’s Puckoon one of the great comic novels when I read it as an 18 year old. When you are an 18 year old bloke a line like ”Vicar, the cat’s pissed on the matches” can easily convince you that you are reading comic genius whereas I had struggled frankly to find the humour in the dark and disturbing The Third Policeman. Well somewhere at a remote rural Irish literary crossroads were The Third Policeman intersects with Puckoon you will find Israel Armstrong. Ian Sansom has produced a series of well received novels about the comic antics Israel Armstrong who somehow or other manages to solve gentle low key crimes as his life slowly falls apart around him and guess what his job is? Yes Israel Armstrong is a librarian, a particularly hapless librarian running a mobile library service in rural Northern Ireland. You see that was my idea apart from the Irish setting obviously and the bit about the mobile library and the fact that the hero was called Israel; so nothing like it all then, but I might have got there too who knows? And now we never will because Ian Sansom got there first.
Israel Armstrong is another fictional librarian whom the library image makers might want to avoid as a potential role model for the library profession. The star of Ian Sansom’s The Mobile Library series occupies that stereotypically charmless and luckless wasteland somewhere between that nadir of the fictional librarian, Timothy Lumsden* , and Mr Bean. His snobbish mother who had hoped he would become a doctor or lawyer considers a librarian “somewhere on the social scale just below a social worker and just above bus driver”, his girlfriend who stays behind in London is too busy even to text him let alone phone or visit and the girl he fancies who helps with the mobile library is far too tough and feisty to be attracted to the sallow soppy librarian. He lives in a chicken coop and drinks beyond his capacity; he is a short fat lapsed Jewish misfit whom women like but never love and he never understands why or what to do about it. Armstrong’s most positive features appear to be remorseless self-pity and a chronic disillusionment with the mendacity and stupidity of the human race or at least the representative sample that regularly turns up as customers at Mr Armstrong’s libraries. There is a lot to admire if you are a short, overweight confused and frustrated former librarian who likes a drink.
Israel has ended up in Northern Ireland as a result of restructuring despite the fact that his previous job was in London and it doesn’t take Israel long to discover that rural Irish customers are just as bad as the readers he has left behind in London. “Reading” he reflects “makes them … even less likely than your fellow man to or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not revolve around you or your ailments”. He concludes that reading is nothing more than a kind of “mental knitting,… a pleasant way of passing time before you die”. Ireland as you can see has not been as successful as Israel might have hoped and it gets no better when he becomes a suspect in a mysterious theft and the disappearance of a company director and falls into the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland where his surreal interrogation has definite overtones of The Third Policeman. The initial sarcastic bravado, “Truth is I am not a mild mannered fellow you see. I’m a dangerous criminal on the run from Interpol”, soon gives way to the comically desperate “Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal” as he realises that he really is a suspect in a crime he was supposed to be investigating, whilst an incident in the church with a fake boulder and a vanishing trick used to recreate the Resurrection was definitely redolent of Spike Milligan’s comic classic, Puckoon. And that is just one novel in the series there are two more!
As Israel reflects on the wreck that is his life he ponders that “If he’d been a detective in one of his favourite writer’s crime novels he’d have drunk a half bottle of whisky and gone driving into the night listening to his favourite music whilst making incredible deductive leaps. Instead he felt sorry for himself, made a cup of tea and went to bed” At that point I decided that this was becoming too spookily like reading an autobiography, made a cup of tea and went to bed.
No home life at all
Libraries seem to hold a particular attraction for writers of historical mystery fiction, most though not all set in medieval Britain or Europe. Lindsey Davis constructs a whole novel out of a story about a library and a librarian but then again this is the Great Library of Alexandria in a novel helpfully entitled Alexandria so she has a fair amount of raw material to work on there. Davis has written so many murder mysteries featuring her Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco in various parts of the Roman Empire that it was inevitable that one would be set in Alexandria which can only mean a mystery featuring the Great Library as there wasn’t a fat lot else there at the time by all accounts. And a good read it is too although there is so much packed into it that by the end it does give the impression of one of those exercises set by creative writing tutors; “Write a story set in Alexandria featuring a dead body in a locked library, a dead librarian and another librarian as a murderer, a stolen scrolls racket, a clever detective with an even more clever wife, lots of accurate period detail, a femme fatale. Oh and let’s say, to make it really interesting… a crocodile”.
The Librarian appears right at the outset of the novel, and despite being a librarian in Ancient Egypt and therefore a pretty important person he is clearly a character to whom we are not meant to form much of an attachment. We can tell this partly because his shabby clothes are “a fortnight overdue at the laundry” as he is a “natural slob” and partly because he is surly, drinks too much and talks very little unless you get on to horse racing, in fact a librarian after my own curmudgeonly heart. But we know not to get too close to him chiefly because he ends up dead on page 22.
Despite his rather peremptory demise it is clear that the librarian and his death are at the heart of some mystery. When last seen alive he was moody and in a world of his own “which seemed pretty normal for a librarian” and it becomes clear as the story develops that professionally he didn’t just have a chip on his shoulder so much as a very big bag of King Edwards. As for his private life, when the Librarian is found dead the next morning behind the inevitable locked door Falco immediately starts to seek reasons why after a good meal in good company and with free flowing wine the Librarian would want to go back to his office instead of straight home. “Poor home life” he muses out loud. “He is a Librarian, Falco” responds his assistant “No home life at all most probably” I thought that was a bit harsh and I can’t repeat what my wife said when I read it out to her without upsetting the censors!
But who would want to kill someone just because they forget to take their clothes to the laundry every week, and how was he killed in a room locked from the outside and how are you going to work that crocodile into the plot?
Equally significant especially for plot development is the fact that Librarian back then was a position of high status and power, unlike today when the government considers them so unimportant they can be replaced by random unpaid volunteers with as much power as your average trainee filing clerk The role of Librarian was a route to become Chief Ministe and so coveted by several other senior academics all of whom obviously become suspects for the killing of the Librarian. As a University Librarian I have of course heard reports of people saying “I’m going to kill that Librarian when I see him” on more than one occasions but that is usually because I have put a crotchety professor’s ancient unused journals in a skip or told a Dean of Faculty that they have to pay overdue fine just like real people, and anyway they don’t really mean it. Do they? The candidates here are a typical rag bag of immature dysfunctional suspects otherwise known as academics, completely expert in their narrow fields of study and absolutely useless at anything practical to do with the real world. They include a lawyer looking to achieve respectability as a Librarian which you don’t hear every day and two who are feuding over the manifold virtues of the voluptuous Roxanna as well as the Librarian post, and both seem to view winning the title and the girl as the equivalent of doing the Cup and League double.
The discovery of Great Library scrolls on a rubbish tip leading to the discovery of the theft of irreplaceable scrolls on an industrial scale gradually reveals the real villainy at the heart of the Great Library, not the librarian gambling away the book budget on the second favourite at Fontwell Park but the Director whom you never really liked anyway who has been gradually selling off the priceless scrolls from the Library and lining his own pockets. Oh and I forgot all about the crocodile. He’s an inmate in the adjacent zoo who accidentally on purpose is released from his cage by one of the contenders for the Librarian post hoping he’ll kill one of his rivals, leading later to the inevitably watery wrestling match with our hero but you already guessed that didn’t you?
PC Doherty like Lindsey Davis has written a lot of historical novels many set in the reign of Edward I that feature gentleman sleuth Sir Hugh Corbett and like Davis eventually he gets round to setting one in an Oxford college library. The Devils Hunt manages to tick most of the boxes required for libraries in thrillers including an impressive ancient library “that smelt of pure beeswax, parchment and leather” and houses most of the great works, a locked Library plot, a library book with significant pages removed and another library book that throws up the answer…oh and another dead librarian. Sadly the plot has nothing to do with any of these but revolves around Simon De Montfort and his defeated supporters, political treachery and betrayal and absolutely no cataloguing at all, although the initial mystery does involve the dead librarian trying to write the name of his murderer before he dies. Being a typical smart arse medieval librarian, though he tries to write it in Latin and then dies before he can finish it so no one knows what the hell he was trying to say. Because of his linguistic thoughtlessness there are at least two more murders but one of them is as a consequence of drinking wine on the Library which will, I know, bring a wry smile of satisfaction to some of the more fundamentalist librarians of my acquaintance who think consuming food and drink within a 10 mile radius of a library is indeed a capital offence.
There is of course just one more historical novel featuring libraries and librarians we must talk about before we move on to other media and that is as I keep saying the greatest novel about libraries ever but that will be for next time.
*The character played by Ronnie Corbett in a 1980’s BBC TV so called comedy series