I have been an unconditional fan of Alexander McCall Smith ever since I bought a copy of “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in Gaborone airport, back in April 2001. We were stuck in Gabs for hours, verging on a day, on our way to the bush…but that’s another story.
Ever since that day, I have read and loved all of Mr. McCall Smith’s books, without exception. So much so, that I have started re-reading them all, and with as much pleasure as the first time round.
The Isabel Dalhousie series reminds me (if this makes any sense) of a contemporary Scottish version of Jane Austen.
Things happen, people meet, accidents take place, but by and large it is the elegance of the prose and the sharp delineation of characters and mood and atmosphere that are the hallmark of these books.
You don’t read Jane Austen for a rollicking good story, or a gripping, dramatic page turner. So it is with an Isabel Dalhousie novel.
You don’t read Jane Austen and roar with laughter. You smile in appreciation, you feel quietly moved. Thus it is with an Isabel Dalhousie novel.
Mr. McCall Smith writes with an elegance of prose, a thoughtfulness, and a kind, gentle, wry intelligence. He wears his obvious scholarship lightly.
In “The Sunday Philosophy Club” we are introduced to the delightful, thoughtful, insatiably curious, 40-something Isabel Dalhousie, who leads a somewhat privileged, intellectual life in Edinburgh. Isabel has inherited money, lives in an elegant home, from where she edits “The Journal of Applied Ethics” which she owns, and leads a leisurely life of music, and art, and wine, and coffee with her slightly difficult niece Cat.
Isabel has a housekeeper, Grace, whose grounded commonsense is a gentle foil to Isabel’s more cerebral take on life.
Isabel thinks a lot. Well, she is a philosopher, after all.
As she walks the streets of her beloved Edinburgh, her mind often wanders and thus she thinks about manners :
What a delightful description of international law – “simply a system of manners writ large.”
Isabel reflects on table manners too, her mind wandering off as she has dinner with the handsome, much younger Jamie, her niece’s ex-boyfriend :
And so we accompany Isabel on her walks though town, and her mental flights of fantasy :
“The Sunday Philosophy Club” is a delightfully relaxed read, to be savoured.
Actually, having said a little earlier in this review that the book is not plot-driven, the opening paragraph is pretty dramatic :
And Isabel’s quest to find out why this young man fell is what leads her off into a series of meetings and encounters that is the backbone of this wonderfully relaxing, charming book.
A great heroine is born in this book – a thoroughly decent, good, moral woman whom you would be pleased to have as a friend. Intelligent but not without her foibles, Isabel Dalhousie is an amateur sleuth in the best tradition.
The hardback is published by Pantheon Books