Ian Sansom is an interesting fellow. A graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge he is now Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Warwick University. He has written several single books, and two series: the Mobile Library Series and the County Guides Series.
The Mobile Library Series concerns the adventures of Israel Armstrong, a passionate vegan and mobile library driver who takes books around small towns in Ireland. Set in pre-second World War 1930’s England, The County Guides, to which The Norfolk Mystery belongs, star Swanton Morley, The People’s Professor, his fiery daughter Miriam, and his young assistant Stephen Sefton, broken and sad after a year engaged in the Spanish Civil War.
Although The Norfolk Mystery, the first book in the Swanton Morley Series, is described as a mystery, it is essentially a character driven tale, where most of the humour is supposed to come from the constant wide-ranging flow of information, Latin quotations, argument about politics delivered to bemused or even hostile listeners by the ‘Professor’ at every opportunity. I will give examples of the ‘Professor’s’ perorations below, but why such a prolix and annoying character? All becomes clearer when we track down the origins of the small black and white photographs that are scattered through the pages of this book. They are reproduced from Arthur Mee’s King’s England Guide to Norfolk. THE Arthur Mee, the person who gave his name to a hugely popular Children’s Encyclopaedia which was published from 1908 to 1964 which covered topics from geology to poetry to Bible stories and everything in between.
Ian Sansom writing about Arthur Mee describes him as an autodidact who was insanely productive, ‘he wrote one million words a year for fifty years…only outdone by the Billy Bunter author Frank Richards.’ He also says that Mee had his blind spots, an unshakeable conviction that Britain was the centre of the world, and the view Christianity was the only religion.
So how does this translate into the character of Swanton Morley? The tale begins well with an account of the young narrator Stephen Sefton’s life. Having come down for Cambridge in 1932 ‘with my poor degree in English, a Third – what my supervisor disapprovingly referred to as ‘the poet’s degree’ he is drawn to the left of politics and heads off to the Spanish Civil War only to return after a year deeply traumatised. Almost out of money he finds a job as an assistant to Swanton Morley to work on a series of County Guides. As Swanton Morley says
I intend the County Guides as nothing less than the new Domesday Book. I shall be going out into England with my assistant to find all the good things and put them down.
Swanton Morley intends to write forty-nine guides of the Counties in a fairly short time.
He runs by the clock. He has every minute accounted for and a desk set up in his Lagonda so he can work while being driven about. It is unfortunate then that in Blakeney at the first church in Norfolk they visit they find the vicar dead and dangling from a rope above the altar. Is it murder or suicide? This complication interferes with the project, but they go on with interviews, enraging most of the interviewees as they go. Here he is about to attend a party where he engages in heated debates about politics and eugenics
‘I cannot abide parties…Sherry party. Cocktail Party. Shooting party. House party. Musical party. Salon. Cénacle. Soirée…Same region, soil and clime, Sefton. Waste and wild, the lot of them.’ He sighed a grand Miltonic sigh.’ And as for the time-table…It’s slipping Sefton. We’re drifting dangerously off course.’
This is a book with three characters. The plot is only a minor annoyance. Of the three characters I found Sefton the most engaging. He is deeply sad, struggling to keep away from sleeping pills and too much booze. The daughter Miriam only appears briefly in this first of the series but when Sefton speaks of her ‘wearisome antics’ he has said it all. Swanton Morley has his heart in the right place, but his know-all verbosity becomes tedious quite quickly.
Ian Sansom can write, there are moving and elegant passages in this book. Why he wastes it on these characters only he can say. I will finish with an excerpt that shows what he can do. Here is Sefton
During my time in Spain a shock of my hair had turned pure white, giving me the appearance of a badger, or a skunk: with my limp, this marking seemed to make me all the more damaged, like a shattered rock or a sliver of quartz: the mark of Cain. I had my hair cropped like a convict’s and wore thin wire-rimmed spectacles, living my days as a hero-imposter, and my nights in self-lacerating mournfulness.