Saturday, June 25, 2005

Of applied ethics and armchair murder mysteries

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.


  1. Jai, you are the victim of your own high standards. This post is just not you.

    And a 'perspicuous' housekeeper? Did you mean 'perspicacious'?

    Wouldn't 'prolificity' be a better word than 'prolificacy'? For once, damn the dictionary.


  2. JAP: well, actually the post IS me. I wrote it.

    Thanks for perspicaciously pointing out the mistake, have changed it now (in defiance of Arundhati Roy's dictum "How can one breathe the same breath twice"). But I think prolificacy is okay.

  3. I have to agree with JAP here. After your usual wonderful post, this one's sort of iffy.

  4. Wow, this is kewl. Imagine setting such high standards that you get comments telling you when an individual post is iffy.

    Hope you guys aren't condescending about Alexander McCall Smith though. He RULES

  5. Haven't read him. I don't read too much mystery, really. Had a bad experience with Miss Marple at the very beginning. My only foray recently has been into Asimov's Black Widower short stories. Those are really good, and almost never violent. You should try them sometime.

  6. My wife turned me on to them...we have all the books in the series (5 of em?). Yeah, they are fun to read.

  7. Will try and get hold of something by Alexander McCall Smith. Hadn't heard of him. Though I am not expecting him to beat Doyle or at even Agatha. SHE rules. How would you rate Dorothy Sayers?

  8. I like the Africa books but Precious' environment as portrayed by the good professor is tinged with both condescension and racism.

    At least, friends of mine in Botswana seem to think so and I can see why.

    I would be mightily pissed off if I lived in a country which has very high literacy, four-five times the income of India and six/seven times the phone/car penetration and saw it portrayed in this cutesy, backwoods fashion.

    IMO Keating actually did a better job on the race-colour score with Ghote.

    Maybe you can suspend questions of colour and read the Precious' as set in some fantastic La-La land?

    Didn't like the Edinburgh book at all. It's far too sympathetic a portrait of an essentially dour, money-grubbing, insular race. But then I guess it's tough for any author to focus the laser of his perceptions on himself and his origins.

    I don't like Christie either -she depends too much on concealing info from her reader for her effects.

    Her non-fiction is fun though - lovely description of bumming around as wife of archaeologist in the Middle East between the wars.

    I do like Sayers - who's honest on the score of giving readers a chance and has a far wilder sense of humour than AC. Her screw up was that she fell in love with Lord P and Harriet is a very badly sanitised portrait of herself.

    Sooner or later, you guys will discover Michael Innes, Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin if you keep walking down the lit tec route.

    At that stage, one can revert to this discussion.


  9. Ouch. DD, I'm going to have to bar you from commenting here. My self-esteem shrivels like a very old prune.

    (Just kidding)

  10. I actually prefer (Dame) Ngaio Marsh with her beautifully written Inspector Alleyn and Troy works to Sayers. Her setting of a murder in the course of a Macbeth play, now has me searching for Macbeth stagings wherever I can find them.

    If you are looking for fast-paced crime set in the UK pre 1945-ish, you might want to give Edgar Wallace and John Creasey (splly, the Toff books) a shot

  11. proflicacy, perspicuous...what next in the 'UNICAMERAL' parade? Floccinaucinihilipilification? yeah, this is me, still reading your blog. Don't write stuff to discourage me.

  12. I think the word you have in mind is "profligacy." And to be profligate is not the same thing as to be prolific, which is what you mean.

    I love the Isabel Dalhousie novels. Much more appealing, in my opinion, than the Precious Ramotswe series.