The protagonist owns and operates a mystery bookstore in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The office of the private investigator next door closes for unknown reasons, and the protagonist finds himself beset with queries from the investigator's clients. During one phone conversation, asked to give his name, the protagonist replies with the first name he can come up with, Lawrence Block.
It turns out that lots of people in Ireland, at least on the phone, recognize the name as that of the famous mystery novelist. I found the wit here delightfully surprising and the plot involving the missing private eye already very engaging. Listen to what comes next:
...the shop door opened and a man came in and asked me if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said yes, if you're a moron.
That's the last line of Chapter One. Listen to how it picks up in Chapter Two:
Well, it turns out John Grisham was on a signing tour of the UK, and not wanting to cause pandemonium wherever he went, he was just calling at bookshops unannounced, which struck me as an inefficient way to do things, but each unto their own. His face is right there on the back of his books, so I get to look at him at least six times a day and of course I recognised you straight off, I said, although in truth, shorn of good lighting and make-up, he looked a lot heavier and his hair was longer and unkempt and his skin was blotchy...
It's lucky that I myself was born with an honest kind of face, as he seemed to accept that my off-the-cuff remark was a typical example of our much heralded Troubles humour, etc., etc.
I made him a cup of coffee while he signed copies of his books...
The protagonist tries to tell him about the mystery he has been investigating or at least make small talk with the author so as not to seem overawed by his celebrity, but the author "kept trying to steer the conversation back to exactly how many copies of his next novel I planned to order, which wasn't a subject I was keen to explore because people can snap them up for half-price in the supermarkets so there's no point in me bringing in more than a few token copies."
"When he finished signing his books, he moved on to signing some books by other authors, which I thought was a little strange, but there didn't seem to be any harm in it. . .But after he had gone and I was beginning to put the signed books on display, I realised that he had signed most of the books "Johnny Grisham' and some of them 'David Grisham' and several 'The Lord God of Hosts'...and I began to reflect on the capacity of the Irish to fall for anyone with an American accent, be they pauper, paranoid, or President, and whatever gibberish they might care to spout."
This spoils some of the opening surprises for you, but there are plenty more where those came from in the novel's easy-to-read 426 pages. It amazes me that it took me so long to discover this book. I'm keen on novels about bookstores and especially about mystery bookshops. At times I thought of Block's The Burglar Who Series, and at other times I was reminded of the best of Donald Westlake. But Colin Bateman is one-off from both of these masters and he brings something fresh. There is a self-effacing nonchalance to his humor that Americans like us will always find endearing.
Previously I had read only his first novel, Divorcing Jack, and I had seen the movie and read his humorous essay on it in Down These Green Streets. Also, some years ago, we caught part of the terrific television series, Murphy's Law, on the American BBC. The first two seasons were created and written by Colin Bateman but it seems he had creative differences with the management of that show and they parted ways.
I've now sent for his other books in this series. I'll try to review them here as I read them, starting with The Day of the Jack Russell.