The Delegates' Choice

Fans will find much frivolity in Ian Sansom's third installment of the mobile library detective series, writes Brendan Deeds

When I was a boy, the tiny blue van would park near my street. Each Monday, inside the cramped space of the mobile library, I would squeeze past the other visitors looking for a good read. There were blue-rinsed grannies grabbing the Mills and Boon with a shirtless pirate on the cover. There were fidgety, awkward teenagers flicking through the pages of random books for any reference to some sweaty anatomy. There were kids looking for the TinTin comics or the latest Blue Peter annual.

Bangor-based novelist Ian Sansom perfectly captures that odd slice of humanity in The Delegates’ Choice, the third in his series of 'mobile library detective' novels. Israel Armstrong, the amateur sleuth, yearns for the life of a sophisticated, cappuccino-sipping Manhattanite.

Somehow however, the Londoner has found himself running a mobile library in a quiet seaside town on the 'windswept north coast of the north of the north of Northern Ireland'. On his trip back to dear old England, the mobile library is stolen. It is up to Israel and his irascible sidekick Ted to uncover the culprit and reclaim the van, before the all-important Mobile Meet.

This is the basic plot, and it is basic. The library is stolen; they look for it and they find it. The mobile van isn’t stolen until half way into the novel, with the preceding chapters showing Israel’s mundane existence in the sleepy town of Tumdrum, lost in seemingly endless conversations with Ted. There is, however, much to praise in the book's early chapters.

Sansom casts a satirical glance over corporate culture, showing its pervasive and pernicious influence in all facets of the modern world. It seems even the parochial world of Tumdrum’s Mobile Library Steering Committee is riddled with management-speak. 

‘The library is the coalface of contemporary information management’ is a phrase both hilarious and chilling. There’s also a deliciously cringe-inducing moment when the committee are about to discuss Sexual and Racial Harassment. A committee member notices an unusual slogan on Israel‘s shirt: 

'What’s that on your T-shirt?’ said Eileen. ‘Smack My Bitch Up?’ 

'Yeesss,’ said Israel. ‘It’s just a phrase.’

Political correctness is an easy target, but that doesn’t make it any less funny when Sansom is on the attack. As a Jewish Englishman, Israel is doubly the outsider, giving him a unique perspective on the Ulster psyche. Everything from politics and religion to eccentric DJs on Radio Ulster are lampooned.

Similarly, Ted’s racism and homophobia are held up as an ugly reality of small-town mentality. It is brave of Sansom to give such flaws to a character who could so easily have been a 'charming rustic local'. The character is prevented from becoming a tame Irish stereotype, although there are times when Ted’s behaviour swerves close to that of the stereotypical country bumpkin. As it is, he’s more like Life on Mars’ Gene Hunt, in a tweed cap.

Unfortunately there isn’t as much comic value in Ted and Israel’s conversations as the novelist seems to think. The Delegates’ Choice is laden with excessive passages of dialogue, whether it’s banter between the steady stream of thinly-drawn locals or the grouchy Ted with his constant malapropisms. 

While amusing at best, after the first few chapters this schtick becomes tiresome. There are too many puns throughout and some jokes that are just plain bad. A particular howler comes when Israel and Ted discover the van has been stolen: 

‘Who are we going to call?’ said Ted. 

‘Ghostbusters?’ said Israel. 

Even a ten-year-old on a sugar rush would frown at that one. The Delegates’ Choice is riddled with such comic misfires, and in a comic novel this is more of a crime than the books' grand theft auto-library.

The overuse of dialogue also prevents the author from creating any real sense of place. Beyond the rural dialect we have no credible feeling of being in the fictional Tumdrum. The reader has to constantly remind themselves that the story is set in Northern Ireland at all. Similarly, we are only given the vaguest descriptions of England.

Whilst the secondary characters, bar Ted, are poorly developed, we get to know Israel very well. Amidst his constant kvetching about life in general there are some attacks at literary trends: celebrity and ghostwritten biographies, diet books, inane chick-lit and even Booker prizewinners. 

Sansom is not only mocking Israel’s cultural pretensions but seems to take great pleasure in sniping at some of his contemporaries. Had The Delegates' Choice been a stronger piece of work this would have been clever, but, as they are, the references to superior novels only serve to make the reader wonder why they’re not reading one of those instead.

The Delegates' Choice can be an amusing read, at times, but if you’re looking to check out a more enjoyable comic mystery novel, Alexander McCall’s No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is a great choice. Indeed, if you want a comic novel featuring a mobile library, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (which sees the Queen become a frequent visitor to a mobile library) is also more deserving of your time. 

However, while The Delegates’ Choice suffers from some comic misfires, too flimsy a plot and the crippling weight of its voluminous dialogue, it will no doubt be welcomed by confirmed fans of Sansom’s mystery series. It just may not win him any new ones.