Alexander McCall Smith has established many series – one might almost call them franchises – with the Botswana novels featuring the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the elegantly timeless but timely 44 Scotland Street, the satirical Scandi noir Detective Varg novels, the underrated whimsy of Von Igelfeld and others. That said, I have an especial fondness for the Isabel Dalhousie novels. It would be easy to be annoyed by Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, who has a charming capacity for getting involved in other people’s problems (or sticking her neb in, if you wish). But for all the trademarked “gentle humour”, they strike me as McCall Smith’s most serious works, and indeed this new novel, The Sweet Remnants Of Summer, has what almost amounts to McCall Smith’s credo.
There are a number of interrelated plots, and not all of them are resolved. In the background, Isabel’s niece, the erratic Cat, has a new man and a new business venture in direct competition with her former business. There has been an outbreak of biting from Isabel and Jamie’s elder son. Isabel has agreed to be on advisory committee for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. But the primary interventions concern another member of the committee, who is concerned that her son has fallen under, she thinks, the malign influence of a Nationalist friend and who has subsequently broken all connections with his Unionist father. This plot is in counterpoint with Jamie’s anxieties that the conductor of the orchestra in which he plays bassoon is secretly plotting to give a job to his lover, based on their relationship rather than her ability. The two strands complement each other, connected by a simple question: do prejudiced people know they are prejudiced? It is the key theme, but there are other philosophical propositions braided throughout the book, from Isabel’s innocent but difficult question in the novel’s first line – “Is it possible, do you think, to be too good?” – to a serious examination of the conditions of and need for forgiveness, and the dangers of Schadenfreude.
There are cadenza-like asides, some very much of the moment. Isabel and Jamie attend the opening of an exhibition called Who Were They?, “The criterion for inclusion being a single quality: the obscurity of the subjects”, we are told, or as Isabel puts it “all these people are pretty much unknown. Forgotten about”. Another such passage involves authors and the extent to which their private lives and opinions might inform – even infect – their literary achievements; bringing to the dock the likes of Philip Larkin, Patricia Highsmith, Patrick O’Brian and Evelyn Waugh. I had a wry smile at Jamie’s take on this old conundrum: “a bad man can cook a good dinner… and you don’t have to eat the dinner with them”.
The moral centre of the novel is stated with restraint and elegance, and involves a refutation of the famous opening line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “People often don’t appreciate how complex happiness may be. They think that happy people are shallow, which can be so wrong. It’s actually far easier to be unhappy than it is to be happy. It requires more effort, more understanding, more character to be consistently happy”. These are wise words, and to an extent they show how McCall Smith’s own seeming effortlessness is hard won and has been worked for hard. In terms of the big political question, the novel is able to allow both sides of the argument to be aired, and if the resolution – wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be nice – seems slightly twee, it does come with a cost. Somebody, eventually, has to say sorry. During the referendum, some tried to discover the voting intentions of people like McCall Smith (or the new Sir Ian Rankin), a move with which I profoundly disagreed (the privacy of the polling booth ought to be sacrosanct). Neither, admirably, were drawn on the matter. That said, it was with a mildly raised eyebrow that I noticed one of the bits of a book that often go overlooked: it is dedicated to Gordon and Sarah Brown. Make of that what you will.
The pleasure of McCall Smith is not to be found in propaganda or pronouncement. In terms of narrative, it is useful to remember the title of Isabel’s journal – it is “applied ethics”. Thinking about things is necessary and good, but doing is more important. “How could anyone say to another: I don’t want to hear what you have to say? She could not, and she would not”. The italic emphasis makes the point of obligation. But the joys are the simple lilt of the throwaway asides. To describe someone as having an attempted moustache is a delight. So too is “And of course anyone might feel guilty about being unkind to a boy from Carnoustie… No, one should not be unkind to those who came from Carnoustie”.
“One should not be unkind” is the essence of McCall Smith. But as he shows, feeling something and acting on it are a different kettle of coconuts, to quote James Kelman. That is why McCall Smith is, behind the giggles, a steely moralist.
The Sweet Remnants Of Summer, by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, £18.99