In the third book in Ian Sansom’s County Guides series, Westmorland Alone, things are still fun and entertaining, but the mood grows progressively darker, and in that odd hinterland between the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of WW2 that perhaps makes sense, and arguably serves as an allegory for our times, rather than serving as reassuring nostalgia.
By the third book the characters have developed (a neat photographic allusion to the camera skills of Sefton), and the arrival of the fourth county guide, Essex Poison, in the local library is eagerly awaited. Of course, it could be reserved, but that seems to be cheating. And it is another reason to pop in on a daily visit, gambling on when it will appear on the Returns shelves of the Crime section. “Anticipation is so much better,” as Delta 5 sang.
Sansom is intriguing. He looks like he would be a handy double for Dave Godin, which is neat as his fellow writer John Murray could stand in for Guy Stevens circa London Calling. One ongoing thing in Ian’s books is the fantastic list of acknowledgements which must take in most people he knows as well as odd public figures like Jean-Patrick Manchette, Nicholas Jaar, Penny Rimbaud, Pascal Garnier, and Rico Rodriguez.
He also has come up with the best use of chthonic in popular literature since Carol Cooper’s 1982 essay, ‘The Creole Complex’, in which she says August Darnell “is possessed of an extremely chthonic imagination and is wholly intent on snatching the mask off anything that passes for respectability.”
Ian’s books are full of arcane information, odd references, and delightful word games, which he carries off with real gusto as he displays all the virtuosity of a true smart aleck. In fact, he could be the smart Aleck to the very smart Ali, two cleverists together.
And very neatly, in his role as a book reviewer in The Guardian, Ian wrote about Ali’s Public Library (there is an earlier Mobile Library series of stories by Ian, incidentally): “It’s not so much the subject matter as the tonal range and subtle arrangements of Smith’s work that are unique and peculiar. She is an expert in combining little glimmerings of rapture with rambling anecdotes, asides and learned disquisitions, to create an impression of density and depth.”
Ian praises Ali’s ability to capture the human voice, the brilliant way she constructs conversations on the page, which is an incredibly hard thing to do naturally. “This is why so many of us feel perhaps that we know her, when of course most of us have never met her and never will. This is not just a gift – Smith is gifted, it goes without saying – it is also a technique: Smithying, we could say, which involves the continual toggling or blurring between modes, using a form of postmodern first-person address that guarantees both immediacy and hyper-mediacy. Smithying is super-frank and super-clever-clever.”
He describes Ali’s Public Library as “a work of endless interventions”, which has an echo in his own Westmorland Alone where his narrator Sefton talks about his employer’s philosophy: “Write it all down. Assemble not disperse. Interventions, not interjections. March, don’t waltz. Reality, not illusions. And always keep a pencil handy.”
Ian plans 44 books in the County Guides series, which is fantastic. Or, as it says in the first book, where Sefton is speaking to Swinton: “’An ambitious project then, sir’. It struck me, in fact not so much as ambitious as the very definition of folly. ‘In a life, Mr Sefton, of finite duration I can’t imagine why anyone would wish to embark on any other kind of project. Can you?’”
That is one of the very earliest quotes written down in this blue book. The very first is from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, and it reads: ”What’s unfinished haunts one; what’s unhealed haunts one”.