Thanks to the wondrousness that is currently my library, I’ve been able to read the two latest offerings from Alexander McCall Smith (though I’ll probably buy them anyway, to match the rest). First, The Lost Art of Gratitude. *L
‘Detective series’ is a somewhat misleading description of the Isabel Dalhousie novels. Rather than page-turning mysteries we have slightly odd happenings which bother people and which Isabel feels obliged to investigate. There’s less description of events than there is stream of consciousness writing, in which Isabel’s thoughts wander, even while she’s on the phone or talking to someone else. It’s all very agreeable because she is an intelligent woman with an agreeable, indeed enviable lifestyle. Strolling around Edinburgh and its environs is also very pleasant. If I have a niggle with this particular title it’s the constant harping on about Scotland and Isabel’s pride in her son Charlie’s Scottishness (he even has a baby kilt). ‘What?’ you may say, ‘It is set in Edinburgh after all.’ Yes, but if I were to write a book about the wonderfulness of being English, someone having ‘English eyes’, for goodness sake, people would suspect me of BNP sympathies. 'Snot fair.
As usual, it’s the basic decency of the McCall Smith world which appeals. I liked this about books:
‘Children like simple tales,’ said Isabel.
‘And we don’t?’
Isabel thought about this. It was just too easy to say that adults did not like stories that were simple, and perhaps that was wrong. Perhaps that was what adults really wanted, searched for and rarely found: a simple story in which good triumphs against cynicism and despair. That was what she wanted, but she was aware of the fact that one did not publicise the fact too widely, certainly not in sophisticated circles. Such circles wanted complexity, dysfunction and irony: there was no room for joy, celebration or pathos. But where was the fun in that?
I think a lot of us are looking for that sort of fun sometimes.
When this was first serialized in The Telegraph I did try for a while to follow it every day but it was too much like keeping a diary and I got behind. With each daily morsel safely between covers I could read and enjoy. The format is the same as for the Scotland Street series, following the lives of themed groups of characters. It’s an excellent keep-reading wheeze; just as you are longing to meet a dog called Freddie de la Hay, the action moves elsewhere. Each chapter is perfectly bite-sized and I love the headings: The Names of Dogs, An Invitation to Bake is Misconstrued, Brutalist Architecture. I also enjoy the wandering thought processes of each character; William, for instance, reflecting on names, pondering the name River Phoenix and imagining a dog called Rover Phoenix: Rover Phoenix would be a good-looking dog; compact, decisive, with a baritone bark and a light in his eye. An American dog, no doubt; certainly a dog who would go down well in California, in the back of an open-topped car, his ears catching the wind.
You find this sort of thing charming or you don’t. I do and I’m in luck as there’s another book on the way. Will useless Eddie survive outside the parental nest? Will Caroline find true love? Will the Barbara and Hugh relationship work out and the odious Oedipus Snark (the country’s only unpleasant Lib Dem MP) get his come-uppance? Will faithful Freddie stay with new part-owner William or return to his old régime of vegetarianism and cat-tolerance? I look forward to finding out.
Freddie de la Hay with a Belgian shoe