Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Careful Use of Compliments

The Careful Use of Compliments
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

The fourth book in the Isabel Dalhousie series finds the 40-something Edinburgh-based philosopher bringing up a bonnie baby named Charlie, struggling to patch up her relationship with niece Cat after getting romantically involved with Cat's ex-boyfriend Jamie, responding to a palace coup on the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Ethics, and solving a mystery involving something a bit off about some art works by a deceased Scottish painter that recently went on sale.

More than some of the previous books in this series (sometimes described as "novels" rather than "mysteries"), this book really has a mystery in it, one with an unusually satisfying payoff for a mystery author who has trained his fans to accept and appreciate something other than a conventional whodunit. It also has some instances of Isabel behaving in ways that make one uncomfortable - not altogether admirable, heroine-type behavior, this go-round. She admits at the end, for example, that she turns out to have done the right thing - but until she saw the outcome, she wasn't sure it was so. The incidents in this book play up the conflict for Isabel between serving her interest and doing what is right, between her moral duty to help and a tendency to interfere. And sometimes her judgment isn't quite sound. The book leaves a lingering sense of ambiguity about how well its issues are settled.

Amid the squirming and wrestling with ethical puzzles, which one ought to expect in a book about a moral philosopher, there are pages of beautiful description of parts of Scotland the series hasn't visited before. These include the Isle of Jura, right up to the remote house where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, and a remote part of Perthshire too. The reader gazes through the lens of McCall Smith's compressed lyricism at one of the most dangerous stretches of water around the British Isles, and into the home lives of families that harbor secrets, guilt, and grudges. His prose opens a portal onto peaceful country scenes with mountain and ocean views and freshly scented air abuzz with insects, as well as the snug atmosphere of high-culture Edinburgh, a haunt of painters, writers, lawyers, and musicians; people who have housekeepers and private chefs, or who drop in on a delicatessen for focaccia with olives.

I suspect visiting this book's Scotland might be a journey of the imagination even for some people living in Scotland. But it is very soothing to the senses after a long day of ordinary work in an ordinary, small American town. It is like a touch of a rare herb giving a special savor to a mundane dish. In its low-key, rarely exciting way it both stimulates and relaxes, rewards the imagination and provides cultural and ethical food for thought. Next in the series is The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, a.k.a. The Comfort of Saturdays.

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