First of all, let’s bask and wallow. Ian Sansom’s County Guides series (like his Mobile Library series before it) is AN ABSOLUTE JOY. Really, that should be the review done. If you are reading them, you’ll be sitting there nodding with a big smile on your face (and maybe a slight nervous twitch at the corner of your mouth because I’m talking loudly and you’d rather keep this a delicious secret wouldn’t you?). If you aren’t reading them because, well, you don’t consider yourself a fan of crime, or of books that make you smile or of books about books that revel in books (in a way that would be the book equivalent of having sex on a bed covered in stolen money), well, you’re a massive dufus. (We don’t normally insult our readers but if you will read [insert whatever is on the bestseller list right now] instead of this, there is only one word for you. You dufus.)
We’ll presume, if you’ve made it by the first paragraph (and the insult- sorry, we weren’t really addressing that at you), you may well have dabbled with Sansom before. You may well have dipped a toe into the world of Stephen Sefton (troubled narrator of the County Guide series), amanuensis to Swanton Morley, the People’s Professor. You’ll know that the County Guides Sansom writes are not in fact the County Guides themselves, but rather a book off to one side of the County Guides (the novel equivalent, if you will, of Tenacious D’s “Tribute”, with it’s heartwarming refrain of:
“This is not The Greatest Song in the World, no.
This is just a tribute.
Couldn’t remember The Greatest Song in the World, no, no.
This is a tribute, oh, to The Greatest Song in the World”).
Sefton himself says,
“Morley’s County Guides were designed as a bold celebration of England and Englishness: my recollections, I suppose, are some kind of minor, lower-case companion. If the County Guides are a scenic railway ride then my own work is the scene of the crash.”
What happens in each County Guide is that Sefton, the Professor and the Professor’s beguiling daughter Miriam (who Sefton has conflicting feelings about) set off for a county (Norfolk in the first book, Devon in the second, Westmorland in this, the third; Essex has been pencilled in for book 4) with the intention of writing a guide, become involved in a murder or two and then set out to solve said murder and/or mystery. Along the way, there will be humour (because Swanton Morley is a delight, a pompous, erudite, kindly buffoon – but also “a celebrant of all that was living”), dark asides (Sefton is a dark young man, recently returned from the Spanish Civil War, given to drinking and fighting in his idle moments – “I was in transit, a pilgrim journeying towards better things”), flirtatious banter (Miriam – also a delight – always has a romance on the go, likes to flirt and toys with Sefton quite monstrously) and intrigue, thrills, spills etc. All of the prerequisites for a jolly good page turner.
This time around, Sefton arrives in Appleby,
“not quite knowing or understanding what was happening, and with the knowledge and feeling of already having done something terribly wrong, so that the whole place seemed alien and unkind, a foreign land inhabited by foreign people suffering their uniquely foreign woes in their uniquely foreign ways”,
participant to a train crash and witness to the death of a small child, plucked from his arms at the moment of impact and again, notice in Sansom’s choice of victim, there is little in the way of sentimentality or silliness here, this is not a literary Midsommer Murders, these are solidly rigorous intelligent reads with a genuine skein of darkness liable to make you shiver.
Later, on a day out to an archaeological dig, Swanton and Sefton discover the body of a young woman:
“It was not the body of a young woman who had been here since the Iron Age. It was the body of a young woman who has not been here for very long at all. The sight of her made me feel quite sick: a corpse in pretty summer clothes, dumped in a pit underground. It was appalling, mind-boggling. I thought for a moment I might have been hallucinating. I strongly wished I hadn’t drunk so much damson wine and smoked so many cigarettes, nor snorted so much powder…”
Of course there are connections between the young lady in the pit and the train crash, and the gradual rooting out of these connections is part of what makes the clockwork of the book tick along so nicely. But there are lots of other attractions to the book as well. We mentioned the humour earlier. Here is a lovely, dry example of Sansom’s wit:
“‘This is the County Guides, Miriam. This is it, the very spirit of the thing. The three of us, en route, in transit. In loco.’
‘Oh! Father!’ cried Miriam. ‘Sefton? Talk to him. We are not driving all the way to Egremont. And that’s final.’
We arrived in Egremont in the late afternoon…”
There is also a lot of pleasure (a ridiculous amount of pleasure) in the way in which Sansom draws on Swanton Morley’s other books (imagine PG Wodehouse having a go at writing in the style of Kurt Vonnegut – always citing the fictional works of Kilgore Trout – and you’ll get the gist of how it works):
“…Morley wondered with purpose. He had clearly been working on something overnight. He had a plan. He always had a plan. (For a purview of his pondering on plans, see his popular pamphlet on project planning and preparation, ‘The Five P’s’, published in 1927, which outlines principles of modern project management which have now of course been widely adopted by businesses, by primary and preparatory school teachers, and in secretarial training colleges in England and throughout the world.”
Truth to say, though, it is actually the commingling of the light and the dark, the feather wit with the thrumming darkness, on a line by line read that makes these books so rewarding. So, for example, on the aforementioned afternoon in Egremont, Sefton and Miriam are waylaid by a gypsy fortune teller. “Shall I reveal your future to you?” she asks Sefton. “It’s not his future that’s the mystery,” Miriam snipes, wittily. Then the gypsy grabs his arm and says, “I know all about you.” Sefton makes a move to get away but she tells him,
“You’re one of those condemned to wander the world without ceasing, running and running, never finding peace.”
In fact, it is the dark bookend Sefton offers – a fight and its outcome – that makes this third outing the best of the three instalments so far. Obviously we already know there is at least a fourth book on its way. We know from Sefton’s darkening tone and the trouble in which he now finds himself that these books are only going to become more gripping, more compulsive and more essential as we go. Darker waters lie ahead, for Sefton, Morley and indeed the country in which the County Guides unravel…
Any Cop?: With each instalment, both Sansom and his books march ever higher up our list of annual favourites. Once more we implore you gentle reader not to get left behind. If you like joy in your life, hitch your beautifully painted wagon to this series of books.