Book review: Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith

EVERY old picture tells a story for prolific McCall Smith, writes Roger Cox

Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Chance Developments by Alexander McCall Smith | Polygon, £9.99

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Alexander McCall Smith is so prolific it can be hard to keep track of the many different strands of his literary output, from the two series he is best known for, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street, to the deliciously mischievous Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainments, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, an array of children’s books and more. You could be forgiven for thinking, then, that this latest release, consisting of five short stories inspired by five old, anonymous photographs, was a new departure, but in fact it is part of yet another, albeit lesser-known strand of the labyrinthine McCall Smith catalogue: works inspired by photography.

Last year, the author brought out a book called A Work Of Beauty, in which he wove the story of Edinburgh around photographs from the archives of the conservation body Historic Environment Scotland; and before that, he wrote an introduction to a book of “orphaned” photos by the American curator Robert Flynn Johnson, in which he opted to invent stories based on some of the images. That, on a more ambitious scale, is what he does here. Following the release of A Work Of Beauty, he asked the editor of that book to supply him with vintage photographs around which he might construct imaginary narratives, and in Chance Developments he shares the results.

In “Sister Flora’s First Day Of Freedom”, a picture of a woman standing in a shaft of sunlight in Waverley Station gives rise to a tale of a nun who inherits a fortune, leaves her order and then toys with the idea of trading Catholicism and Glasgow for Protestantism and Edinburgh. Elsewhere, a picture of two men changing the wheel of a vintage car while a woman in a bonnet looks on provides a jumping off point for a clear-sighted love story set in rural Ireland, and a comical shot of a man sitting on a woman’s knee inspires an unlikely tale of ventriloquism and unrequited love set in a Canadian circus. The two most memorable stories, however, are “Angels In Italy” and “He Wanted To Believe In Tenderness”. It’s impossible to say much about the former without giving away the ending, but the latter is a profoundly moving exploration of the idea that, sometimes, love really can conquer all.