One of my many reading regrets is that I’ve taken so long to get around to the books of Alexander McCall Smith – the kindly-looking Scotland-based law professor who, in his spare time, writes with amazing prolificacy. Don’t judge a book by its cover, we’re told, but the bright, friendly covers of McCall Smith’s novels – with their colourful relief-print illustrations by Hannah Firmin – do in fact prepare the reader for what lies within: charmingly written amateur-detective stories peopled with the most likable protagonists. There’s something very reassuring about holding a new McCall Smith novel in your hand – the book is very nice to look at, and you’re assured of a good yarn and of spending some quality time in the company of someone like Precious Ramotswe, “the Miss Marple of Botswana” and the star of six books in the extremely popular No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series.
But the book I just finished is The Sunday Philosophy Club, the first of a new series set in Edinburgh and introducing a new lead character – Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. As the novel begins Isabel sees a young man fall to his death from the upper circle of the Usher Theatre during a concert. “Accident, suicide or…?” is the inevitable question (though it’s typical of McCall Smith’s leisurely paced style that the word “murder” doesn’t even appear until around 130 pages into the book).
McCall Smith is sometimes likened to Agatha Christie and I see the point; I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his books to anyone who enjoys Christie. They have the same old-world cosiness and almost demand that you read them while reclining in an armchair. But his novels aren’t as intricately plotted as the Grand Dame’s and they aren’t murder mysteries in quite the same sense. In The Sunday Philosophy Club for instance, during the course of Isabel’s investigations we are introduced to not more than four or five characters who might fit the bill, and one of them does turn out to be the killer. There are minor twists near the end but no jolting surprises of the sort you find in Christie’s best-known mysteries.
Much more is invested in the character of Isabel and in her relationships with her perspicacious housekeeper Grace, with her niece Cat, and with Cat’s former boyfriend Jamie. Equally interesting is Isabel’s habit of carefully studying the ethical implications of every situation she finds herself in. (“We have moral obligations to those who we come up against, who enter our moral space,” she says, explaining her curiosity about the boy’s death, “I was the last person that young man saw, and don’t you think the last person you see on this earth owes you something?”) An element of stream-of-consciousness (Isabel’s musings on the rights and wrongs of various topics: hypocrisy, half-lies and truths) runs through almost every chapter and some of the book’s best moments are vignettes that have nothing at all to do with the murder mystery – for instance, Isabel’s conversation with a young punk with facial piercings. “It shows I have my own style,” he says, “I’m not in anybody’s uniform.” To which she good-naturedly replies: “Unless, of course, you have donned another uniform in your eagerness to avoid uniforms.” With due respect to the ghosts of Poirot and Marple, McCall Smith has a greater gift for character development than Christie did.
Anyway, enough pontificating – it’ll probably take you less time to get through a chapter of one of these books than it did to get through this post. So rush out now and pick up the full No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series for starters. And an armchair to go with it.