My local library has fully embraced technology to the extent that they now offer audio books for download in MP3 format and currently have a fair selection of books in several genres for downloading via NetLibraries, however the largest percentage of titles available by far is in crime fiction. I've never read a Colin Bateman book before but the brief synopsis for this one appealed as it claimed to be a crime novel heavily laced with humour. As I tend to listen on my walk to and from work, it helps if I'm listening to something that makes me smile.
The lead character, narrator and, I'm guessing titular hero of this story, is a man whose name we never learn: a mystery man. He owns a bookshop called No Alibis on Botanic Avenue in Belfast which sells crime and mystery books. The bookshop, with the by line 'murder is our business', is situated next door to Private Eye, a detective agency and when the owner of the agency goes missing his customers begin to pop next door to No Alibis to see if they can get help from there instead. Regarding himself as something of an expert in crime, he feels eminently qualified to solve mysteries and sees being a private eye as something of a natural extension to the mystery book selling business. Before he knows it, he has acquired a second string to his bow as a private investigator.
The humour in this book is of the laugh-out-loud variety. Told in the first person, the listener is taken on a roller coaster ride around the cityscape of Belfast and the laughs begin more or less straight away when a man enters the narrator's shop and asks the question "Do you sell books by John Grisham?", to which our hero replies "Only to morons." This opening gambit leads to a hilarious episode in which it turns out the real John Grisham is visiting bookshops to check out which to use for book signings but all is not as it seems, though our hapless hero doesn't discover this until it's way too late.
His first case as a PI, which he has no difficulty in slotting in between his bookshop customers, is the search for Mrs Geary's leather trousers. These distinctive designer trousers had been entrusted to Mr Geary who was to have them professionally cleaned but the trousers have not only gone missing from the specialist cleaner's shop but have reappeared covering the lower half of a 'rather big girl' who works on the make up counter at Boots. The man with no name manages eventually to resolve the case, which turned out to be a less than stellar success (although he does eventually just about break even financially.) He then almost immediately takes on his next investigation, an interesting case involving the search for the graffiti artist who has distressed local business man, Albert MacIntosh, by painting 'Albert MacIntosh is a fruit' on one of the city's flyovers.
To begin with I thought the novel was simply going to be episodic, dealing with case after case but then things begin to take a different shape and events take a more sinister turn. By now the erstwhile PI has become acquainted with Alison, the girl from the jewellery shop across the road, who he's long admired from afar (or should that be stalked as occasionally binoculars have come into play) and the plot is thickening by the day. Before he knows it, dead bodies are piling up and he's seriously out of his depth.
In many ways, the narrator/bookshop owner reminds me very much of the Dylan Moran character from Black Books. He's not really a people person and in his more honest moments he admits this fact 'My field of expertise is books, not people. Definitely not people.' In fact, he's frequently rude to his customers, is on medication for depression, and is a borderline weirdo. This is a man who defines his customers as 'a heady mix of silent but deadly farters, shoplifters, alcoholics and students'. I understand there really is a bookshop on Botanic Avenue called No Alibis though I'm unsure whether the owner bears any resemblance to our mystery narrator. I doubt it though, as he'd have gone out of business long ago!
As this is told in the first person, we only ever get to know the other characters via the slightly skewed view of our intrepid hero but they are every bit as quirky and strange as he is himself but strange and quirky as only the Irish can be. (Any Irish reading this review, please don't take this as a racist remark, it's intended as a compliment!) All the ensuing murder and mayhem is recounted in this recording in a very deadpan fashion by Stephen Armstrong. I don't know whether Stephen Armstrong is Northern Irish but his accent was sufficient to convince me and was certainly just right to convey the strange personality of the main protagonist.
If I have any criticism at all, it's that a knowledge of the geography of Belfast would have been handy because there are many references to various streets and locations within the city. However, that's probably being too picky and not knowing where these places were didn't spoil my enjoyment one jot and I certainly won't be knocking any stars off for such a minor quibble.
This is an unabridged version and lasts for 10½ hours and I found myself not only listening on my outward and homeward journeys to work but also whilst pottering in the garden or cooking dinner but the hours of listening flew by and it was with real regret that I reached the end of the story; always a sign that a book has been of exceptional quality.
The language in the book is as colourful as many of its characters and there is frequent use of four letter words, including the 'c' word at one point. This isn't a word I particularly like but found that its use here is not at all offensive or gratuitous: in fact it's downright funny.
If ever you needed proof that all the Irish from both north and south have kissed the Blarney Stone, this is the book to provide it. It's a delight from start to finish, filled with some great one liners and laugh-out-loud humour, all delivered with a charm which seems to be hot wired into the make up of every Irishman. I absolutely loved listening to this book and I shall certainly be checking out the rest of Colin Bateman's work in the future. If all of his other books are up to this standard, I know I'm in for some great entertainment. This book is the perfect blend of murder, mayhem and mirth.
It seems that Mystery Man proved so popular that Colin Bateman has written two other titles: The Day of the Jack Russell and Dr Yes, both of which I'm currently waiting for at my local library.
Mystery Man in MP3 audio format is available for free download from participating public libraries via NetLibraries or from Amazon for £13.49 (£3.99 if you have Audible membership). Alternatively, it's available in Kindle format for £4.99 and paperback copies can be picked up from 1p.