As regular readers of Bookmunch will know, we have been what you might call Ian Sansom fans since Ring Road and have continued to enjoy what he does in direct proportion to the outrage we feel that he isn’t a household name beloved of readers and (what the hell) non-readers the land over, ever since. We enjoyed the four volumes of The Mobile Library series (and continue to recommend them to anyone who enjoys slightly tongue in cheek detective dramas featuring extremely bookish young men with self-esteem issues – you can read our reviews of The Delegate’s Choice and The Bad Book Affair to find out more), we enjoyed The Enthusiast website and corresponding collections, and we enjoyed his wonderful elegy to Paper. We have, to paraphrase Marc Bolan, been banging the old gong about Ian Sansom for a good wee while now. And given the inordinate pleasures to be had in The Norfolk Mystery, the first we are told in a new and ongoing series of books, we will continue to do so for some time to come. Or rather, we will bang the gong with considerably more fervour because The Norfolk Mystery represents Sansom upping his game quite considerably. He was good before. Very good at times. Now he is excellent. Now he is excelling. Now he is essential.
The series is packaged as ‘The County Guides’, a collection that takes a county as a starting point and… well, what. You’re already either bemused or bored by that premise right? But that is merely the cover. What we have here is a novel, narrated by a dark, troubled young intellectual called Stephen Sefton, just back from fighting in the Spanish Civil War (the novel is set in the early 1930s) and clearly a boat in search of a rudder, whose orbit becomes entangled with a rather eccentric chap called Swanton Morley, who is forever reading, tapping at his typewriter (often from a desk constructed in the back of a sports car as his wayward daughter Miriam drives him all over the place). Morley is planning to write a book a month, one on each of the counties, and it is while engaged on the first, in Norfolk, that he and Sefton are caught up in the eponymous mystery – a priest found hanging, a young woman immolated down by the dock, a closed-up community remaining somewhat tight-lipped in the face of the horror.
On the surface of things, Sefton shares certain traits with The Mobile Library‘s Israel Armstrong – both bookish, both snooty and socially inept, in some respects, both clumsy, both easily hurt. But Sefton is an altogether darker and more complex concoction. His experiences in the Spanish Civil War (beautifully wrought here – Sansom could sometimes be said to write with his tongue in his cheek, a dry punchline never too far away – The Norfolk Mystery resists these impulses when it suits to cast a more sombre light, and it is truly affecting), his interactions with the priest’s maid, Hannah, even the (yes okay) comic interactions with Miriam are cut from a different cloth to previous Sansom books (with the exception of Paper – the erudition on display in Paper is used to dazzling effect here – Sansom is a storyteller, one of the finest, and he takes us on a merry dance here, alluding to other stories we have yet to hear in the style of Conan Doyle).
The Norfolk Mystery is also somewhat more political than Sansom’s previous books (even though it’s set in the 30s, there is much here that could be said to be Sansom writing about the situation that faces us in the world right now – a contretemps with a local Tory is of particular interest) and more urgent: where The Mobile Library felt like it could easily have been adapted for the screen by Graham Linehan (something we’d all still like to see here at Bookmunch Towers), The Norfolk Mystery would require someone able to deftly step between comedy and drama at a moment’s notice (imagine Mark Gatiss being asked to direct an episode of Parade’s End and you’ll get a scent of what an adaptation could be like).
All told, The Norfolk Mystery is a pleasure, a rapacious pleasure at that, a book we devoured in an afternoon, keeping the world at bay in order to turn the bally pages as fast as we were able. If you are a reader, a person who has been reading books for a while and enjoys reading books and talking about books and cannot imagine a life without books in them – you should be devouring Sansom because his books are full of books and reading and his characters are people whose lives have arguably been perverted by the reading of books. Also, we sense, if The Norfolk Mystery sells as well as it should we might be able to stay in the company of Sefton, Miriam and of course the People’s Professor Swanton Morley a wee while longer.
Any Cop?: If you don’t rush out and buy this book now we can not consider ourselves friends any more. It’s as serious as that!