Monday, January 4, 2016

The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this first book of a series that is either named after this book or its main character, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland, noses into a matter that may or may not be any of her business. It's a matter of moral responsibility for her, and she should know about that kind of thing, being the editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics. Anyway, she was the last person who locked eyes with a beautiful young man as he fell to his death from the upper gallery of a concert hall, and she thinks his death may be more than an accident.

As Isabel pokes around among people who may have had motive to give this Icarus type a push, she faces the disapproval of her niece Cat, a cafe owner who always falls for the wrong sort of man, and of Jamie, the one ex-boyfriend of Cat's of whom she entirely approves (maybe too much). She notices the dead kid's flatmates are sleeping together, and one of his coworkers seems to have a killer art collection. She suspects a stockbroker's wife of having a sociopathic streak, and she gets a good scare when someone she consults for background on the victim turns up in her house at night without an invitation - just when he starts looking like a good suspect himself.

Isabel has the financial independence and leisure to spend a lot of time prowling Edinburgh for clues, which is good for us; it gives us a chance to explore Edinburgh too. The impression it leaves is that of a small, close-knit, slightly stuffy but very beautiful city, full of history and art and peculiar characters, besides such whimsies as the "Really Terrible Orchestra" (of which the author, according to his dust jacket bio, is a real-life member).

As I broaden my readings in McCall Smith's numerous cycles of books, I feel I am learning to know him better. I've noticed, for instance, that he likes to describe his young male characters as being unusually beautiful, but seldom applies his rich descriptive talent to developing a specific mental image of them. I think he has a great sympathy for women, especially ones like Isabel and (in another series) Precious Ramotswe who have been done wrong by the men in their past. He's an author whose stories often illustrate the deep debt men owe to the women of this world.

So I think I would recommend his books both to women, because he understands them, and to men, because he may have something to teach them. But also, by the way, they manage to be fun to read without all the big-budget special effects and pyrotechnics of the common, or garden, mystery thriller.

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