There’s a genre of TV my wife and I return to time and again, for which I shamelessly claim the honor of having named: Comfort Comedy. This is the media equivalent of mac & cheese. Nothing revelatory, nothing risky, and at the end of the day you know you’ll feel satisfied, comforted, and um… full, I guess. This for us is fiction like Bob’s Burgers and Kim’s Convenience. It’ll tell scampy stories with some hijinks but always come back to homeostasis of a loving family who care about each other and inflict no lasting wounds to one another.
There are certainly book equivalents of this (looking at you, Legends & Lattes) and they fill the same critical niche as do the TV shows. But here’s the thing: the stakes need to stay low, otherwise it’s just weird. I recall a book I tried to read years ago and never finished, which made so little impact that I’m sorry to say I can’t remember the title. The main character was a PhD student looking into colonial New England and the history of witchcraft. She met a guy who was studying colonial NE woodworking, and you can tell from details like his description of draw-bore joinery that research and care went into this. You can tell the same around the writer’s description of defending a PhD thesis (which was so vivid that I thought of it, and the terror therein, as I decided to abandon dreams of grad school (not at all to my detriment)). But also, there was maybe a witch, and half or less than half a mystery? Idk, I didn’t finish it; too tonally schizoid and boring.
The Librarian of Crooked Lane almost filled the same twilight zone of indeterminate tone as did the unnamed book above. There’s loving and passionate detail in the description of post-WWI England. The description of fashion of the time, applied via powder stuck into petroleum jelly, sounds believable and like real research went into it. So does the less-fun description of the travails of shell-shocked soldiers, and the sexism they aim at the women who stepped into their jobs when they were on the front. They feel displaced, and the women who stepped up and became journalists and assistants instead of just wives and mothers feel jilted out of the purpose they occupied part-time only. All of this is well-realized and adds verisimilitude to the story.
But the story in question is about theft, a mystery, attempts at kidnapping and murder, and also a poorly-defined magic system. People are hinted at as being Magicians, but I have no idea what this magic is supposed to be. If you’re a craftsperson, being a Silver Magician, or a Paint Magician, or even a Cotton Magician, means you will create, through natural talent, the best examples of those works that can exist. But it never says why, apart from that other Magicians can tell your work is magical, and people who were previously drawn inexplicably to your work suddenly realize they were drawn because it’s magical, and the dollar value of your now-magical work skyrockets, even if previously, as established by the story, the magic wasn’t enough to keep you out of artistic poverty. In other words, the magic system fills the same role as a Ponzi Scheme, or day-trading by way of Jim “Wall Street Bets but with an air of officialness” Cramer.
You’re left through all this with a story that kept me enough to finish it, but only because I like to finish stories I start. If I’d read it at the same time in life as I read that maybe-there’s-a-witch story, I’d have set it down and never picked it back up. Ultimately, its only sin is that the author needed to commit more. If we saw more danger when there was a kidnapping, or we cared more about art being stolen, or if the author could just commit to why magic mattered, it would have been a pretty solid story. In the end I recommended it to my wife, but only because she’s a book-fiend (I read one book a week, she blazes through three, easily) and I thought she’d relate to the librarian main character. I can imagine picking up another book in the series, but I can also imagine forgetting the series exists and needing to revisit my Cannonball records to remember that I read it.