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The summer serendipity of 'blanc fiction'
"The dog days of summer" is an expression that resonates with extra fervor in this particular year. Gas prices are high and the price of groceries seems to climb a few extra cents with each visit to the store. Mortgage is to foreclosure what bread is to butter. Jobs are being cut and the mood is grim. And in the book world, the running joke is that the month of August is a publishing-wide holiday, so forget about accomplishing much in the way of anything.
All told, it's a recipe for escapism; and while many prefer to forget about dark times with similarly toned entertainment (consider "The Dark Knight," or even this column, whose name reflects my general crime fiction predilections), others prefer the opposite approach.
In the August issue of Paste magazine, Peter Langness praised what he termed "blanc fiction" -- crime novels with a lighter tone that concentrate their narrative efforts on mining the human condition. Though his primary example of Colin Cotterill's "The Curse of the Pogo Stick" (Soho Press: 272 pp., $24) doesn't quite fit (some of the crimes, even offstage, border on the bizarre and bloodthirsty), Langness scores more accurate points praising "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" novels of Alexander McCall Smith: Crimes of any kind (let alone murder) hardly figure in the internationally bestselling series, eight books and counting. "We are not here to solve crimes," Precious Ramotswe, the Botswanan "lady detective" in question, indignantly tells a potential client. "We help people with the problems in their lives."
The term "blanc fiction," then, implies a sense of community between the reader and the books' characters. It might even be a better term for what's now called "cozy" mysteries, in which a crime's commission, detection and resolution recede into the background in favor of the protagonist's idiosyncrasies, whether on a personality, professional or social level. Or, shrugging off complex reasoning, these books aim to make the reader smile, to sip metaphorical bush tea for a few hours and forget troubles in order to get happy -- even on a temporary basis.
"Blanc fiction" also implies a level of quality control that is too often missing from the "cozy" category, pumped out month after month by select American mass market publishers like Berkley Prime Crime and Signet. Time will tell whether a handful of these topical titles will experience a renaissance similar to the hard-boiled reissue craze pioneered by Black Lizard and furthered by Hard Case Crime, but if I had my druthers, Ian Sansom's delightful "Mobile Library" novels would stick around in perpetuity. Like Mma Ramotswe, Israel Armstrong, the shambling, half-Jewish, half-Irish librarian first introduced in Sansom's "The Case of the Missing Books" (HarperCollins: 336 pp., $12.95 paper), has no intention of solving crimes. Unlike her, Israel only helps others by pure happenstance, caught up in situations that would make even stars of NBC's " The Office" cringe in discomfort.
Consider that "The Case of the Missing Books" opens with Israel, having traveled from his beloved London to the tiny Northern Irish outpost of Tumdrum, discovering his library job eliminated -- along with the library itself. The books are missing from the rickety, rusty, years-out-of-date mobile library assigned to Israel as a nominal replacement, and he must find them to keep his job -- when he's not interacting with offbeat locals such as the mobile's driver, Ted, and his icy, obstinate boss, Linda Wei, or longing for a return to London or using his copy of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" to scare away crowing chickens at ungodly hours of the morning ("he knew that'd come in useful one day").
"Mr. Dixon Disappears" (HarperCollins: 320 pp., $12.95 paper) concerns itself with the more serious question of an elderly gentleman's disappearance, and as a result Israel's personality and Sansom's madcap satire seem diminished. But "The Book Stops Here" (HarperCollins: 308 pp., $13.95 paper) marks a return to form for both author and protagonist for a number of reasons: the increasingly absurd banter between Israel and Ted, which echoes Israel's sinking feeling he "was in a never-ending episode of '24' or a play by Samuel Beckett"; the return of emphasis on the fate of the mobile library (stolen from a quiet street corner for reasons both countercultural and hilarious); and Israel's long-awaited return to London (to attend the annual mobile library convention), which forces him to confront long-denied truths about where his true home might be. Israel has a clear understanding of his detecting abilities, wishing "he was a gentleman detective, far away from [Tumdrum], with a cocaine and morphine habit, and a slightly less intelligent confidant to admire his genius" instead of engaging in mundane tasks such as frittering away hours (and his taste buds) at the local cafe.
But both the comedy of his life and his search for the missing mobile library give way to a mixture of empathy and indignation on his behalf, after a protracted, wince-inducing dinner scene with Israel's family and a lack of response from his girlfriend, Gloria, to text messages and voicemails. Despite the obvious conclusion about the true nature of their relationship, Israel's return to their shared apartment still packs a devastating punch for both him and the reader.
Ultimately, the "Mobile Library" novels are less about crime-solving or spending time with idiosyncratic characters than they are about the effects of displacement. Without a home to cling to, Israel is shocked to discover "he had become doubly foreign: he had lost his place and failed to find another." The challenge Sansom now faces is whether to keep Israel Armstrong as the intellectual outsider looking in at the static, obstinate Tumdrum ways or to allow him and the town to come to a harmonious existence -- even if the coffee never, ever improves.
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.