Ian Sansom is the author of The Truth About Babies: From A-Z (2002) and Ring Road (2004).
He is a regular contributor to The Guardian and the London Review of Books.
The Case of the Missing Books (2006): Mr. Dixon Disappears (2006), and The Delegates' Choice (2008) are in the series 'Mobile Library Mysteries'. The fourth book in the series is The Bad Book Affair (2009).
Ian Sansom's critical reviewing for publications such as the London Review of Books and The Guardian suggest that he is an author at very great ease with literature.
His unique skill lies in his ability to weave his own narrative with other texts, whether that is Baudelaire, 'On the Essence of Laughter' in The Truth About Babies: From A-Z (2002) or 'picture books and easy readers' in Mr. Dixon Disappears (2006). There can be no doubt held that he is a man not well read; all his work is heavily allusive for those who seek influences and inferences, and in nearly all his fiction (although to a lesser extent in Ring Road, 2004) reading habits and the dissemination of knowledge is a key thematic and structural element.
Should Israel Armstrong, the librarian protagonist of The Mobile Library series, wish to order The Truth About Babies for the Tumdrum Mobile Library, he would likely catalogue it as a 'parenting' book. Yet, it is far more literary than this, and reading it one can't help but think that Sansom is actively challenging the connotations of that genre. The Truth About Babies is not a text deliberating over formula milk, it is an anthology of Sansom's life experiences informed by cultural inheritances and the myriad impressions of parenthood. The book is at times frank, 'The shock of one's twenties: to discover that other people are as interested in sex as you are', and at others philosophical, 'All knowledge is excessive. And most comes unexpected'. Indeed, the very simplicity of its A-Z structure is undermined by the incomplete and clichéd nature of its form; a form for which Sansom no doubt owes a debt to Gustave Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas (a collection of platitudes and quotation). While completeness is ultimately unattainable in textual form, personal completeness, or honesty, can be explored.
Thus, Sansom's form and tone is as telling as his content; he has chosen carefully to toy with generic definitions. The Case of the Missing Books (2006), Mr Dixon Disappears and The Delegates' Choice (2008) fail when considered as simplistic detective stories. As social commentaries and comedies of manners with a vague mystery forming the background plot, they are much more successful. Even the more damning reviews can be shrugged off on these terms; Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski claims of The Case of the Missing Books, 'the book's full of hot air', (Independent on Sunday, March 5, 2006), and that is a fair summation. The book is deliberately light-hearted, and resists the suspense of common thrillers. In terms of tone, then, the novels are in some ways similar to the plays of Oscar Wilde – although the setting and community is vastly different.
Killian Fox comments that '[the] Northern Ireland Tourist Board will find little to laugh about' (Observer, 19 February 2006) of The Case of the Missing Books, and it is true that the 'hero' casts a highly critical eye over his new home. Sansom's novels unanimously suggest that in Northern Ireland it rains, the people speak in an almost unintelligible dialect, are prone to sarcasm and in-jokes, and are on the whole polar opposites of his vegetarian, Guardian-reading, liberal-minded, corduroy-wearing protagonist. However, the ridicule is fond, and falls on both the locals (and they are undoubtedly highly 'local' people) and Israel himself.
If Sansom was to be noted for one thing alone, it must surely be his acute appreciation for the quirks of his adopted home. Even Northern Irish writers such as Colin Bateman and Glenn Patterson could not fail to envy his sensitivity to local dialogue, and to concede that it is certainly a very great achievement for one not native to the culture. The novels rely heavily on dialogue for colour and humour, and the exchanges might not be out of place on the script of satirical drama Give My Head Peace. An exchange on a radio show in Mr. Dixon Disappears in particular is almost close enough to be a transcript of a popular (and uniquely Northern Irish) phone-in show:
'“That,” the man was half shouting, “is unbelievable.”“It is,” said the caller. “It's unbelievable”“It. Is. Unbelievable! D'you know that?”“It is, Robbo, yes. It's unbelievable.”'
Sansom's fiction offers total immersion in his created (Northern Irish) milieux by creating full back stories for even minor characters; something which not only reflects the small-town nature of his settings, but makes his novels unsettlingly plausible in their comic realism. Ring Road is perhaps the most obvious example of this tendency to intensify forward-moving narrative with reams of back-story. Footnotes not only provide corroboration of apparent fact 'To consult the Impartial Recorder archive at the library, contact Philomena Rocks', but back-story on characters who are actually dead, 'Victor Russell, a supercilious man with a Hitler moustache […] died in disgrace, in prison up in the city', and even (in one case) a knitting pattern for woolly hats for seamen, 'A typical 1952 pattern and outline reads thus:', with footnotes often intruding on the text, and snaking over two pages. This excessive detail is also a thematic element in the books in The Mobile Library series; Israel Armstrong's full CV, we are told, was printed in the local paper (also called the Impartial Recorder). The lengthy 'Acknowledgements' of all his books is also evidence of heightened attention to detail, and humour.
Sansom offers a remarkably complete package for readers; his work is enjoyable yet hides great skill behind apparent frivolity. Sansom is a writer happy to make mischief with our expectations of genre, and perhaps to play even with our expectations of authorial presence; on his website (www.iansansom.net) he includes The Enthusiast's Field Guide to Poetry (2007) among his books. This text is apparently authored by a mysterious 'The Enthusiast', but this mystery, like that of the Mobile Library Series plots, is one thinly veiled. The Enthusiast's Field Guide to Poetry, like all of Sansom's work, contains trademark humour, coupled with a paradoxical earnestness, predilection and passion for the subject in hand.
Alex Pryce, 2009