Book review: The Charming Quirks of Others

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The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith Little Brown, 256pp, £17.99

He's a one-man Babel tower; a phenomenon. Author of more than 60 books, which have been translated into over 40 languages, Alexander McCall Smith's ubiquity in the bookstores of the planet is, to the razing of the rainforest, what fried bacon is to the case for eating meat. A justification beyond moral cavil. He is - let's proclaim it - an addiction.

And perhaps he too has become addicted - enslaved to the writing of series novels. There's the smash hit No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series set in Botswana - 11 titles in print, with at least three to follow; the 44 Scotland Street series, featuring genteel life in Edinburgh's New Town; the Portuguese Irregular Verbs books; the Corduroy Mansions series. And The Sunday Philosophy Club, the sixth of which is inching McCall Smith's presence even further along my bookshelves as I write.

Of course, he has strayed now and then from serial fidelity into one-off affairs with novels; there's the children's book Akimbo and the Baboons, plus a scholarly tribute to the work of WH Auden (an enthusiasm he shares with one of the Scotland Street gang and with Isabel Dalhousie of The Philosophy Club). The Charming Quirks of Others, both in the tenor of its title, as well as repeatedly in its content, catches and signals the disposition of the author's principal characters - in whichever series you find them.

They tend to be good, intelligent, given to gentle adventure and wit. A moral curiosity governs their lives. No single character epitomises these traits to a greater degree than Dalhousie herself. She is vibrant, truthful, tolerant, empathetic to a remarkable degree, and, perhaps more than any other presiding McCall Smith protagonist, she has developed and deepened the scope of her humanity over the course of these half dozen novels, grown as a woman - not necessarily intellectually, but romantically, through her love affair with Jamie (14 critical years her junior), while steeled by the mothering of Charlie, still barely a toddler, the joy of their lives.

Like Mma Ramotswe of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Isabel has the gift of an expansive, forgiving humanity which embraces the world it inhabits. She shows a heightened sense of place, an appreciation of the landscape and the people from whence she springs. She is also a sleuth, but the professional philosopher in her mitigates the amateur detective's rush to conclusions. She chides and cross-questions herself, sifts evidence, spots connections and often gets lucky. And like McCall Smith, her imagination is rarely still.She is the queen of examined lives.

Though evolved from the previous books in the series, The Charming Quirks is a free-standing entity, with a newly minted plot-narrative and puzzle to be addressed, Yet it has retrospective resonance for readers familiar with its Edinburgh setting and principal players.

The opening chapter's conversation, set in a caf, features Isabel with her friend Guy Peploe, art connoisseur. They consider gossip's role as a lubricant around the dinner tables of Edinburgh's elite. "There are certain people who are talked about a lot," she says. "A few people in this city who know that every Saturday their names are going to be mentioned at numerous dinner parties … Imagine knowing that there are ten, maybe twenty tables at which you are going to be taken to pieces and then put together again - if you're lucky." No names, no pack drill. And, heaven forbid, no hint of self-reference. But McCall Smith is raising an eyebrow as well as a smile.

The objects of ridicule conjured forth by Guy and Isabel are Edinburgh's teachers, those whose reputations have been tarnished by rumour or fact - a neat precursor to the novel's central pursuit: that of discovering the truth surrounding a sinister allegation that one of the candidates shortlisted for the principal's post at prestigious city boarding school Bishop Forbes is unfit for the job. An anonymous letter has been received.

For much of the novel Isabel nibbles ever closer to the truth. No "crime" has been specified, and the identity of the candidate in question (there are three of them) has been fudged. Complications arise when one of the suspected three turns up as the boyfriend of Isabel's niece, the fiery Cat; and then a cousin of another of the runners comes to make Isabel's acquaintance at a meeting engineered by Grace, Charlie's nanny, to whom Dalhousie reveals both the nature and salient details of the case.

Such convenient coincidences are rationalised on the basis that the "village" nature of Edinburgh makes their occurrence almost certain. Less excusably, the conspicuous moral dubiety of Isabel's indiscretion is absorbed without further comment into the novel's weave of knitted brow conversations - quasi tutorials on the nature of identity, on freedom of choice, the limits of trust in everyday life, and what it means to live in the shadow of a partner's career ambitions.

Jamie, a bassoonist, becomes the object of desire of a fellow musician who claims she is dying. Isabel's anger is engulfed by a flood of mixed feelings. What should she do? And, what should she do about the professor of philosophy, an acquaintance, who seeks to use the Review of Applied Ethics which Isabel edits to vent his spleen against a colleague in a book review? Unthinkable!

McCall Smith brightens up the stasis with talk of Jamie and Isabel's wedding plans, and of Charlie's childish excursions. But the driving eye of the prose is Isabel's sharpness of sensibility.Her awareness solves the mystery of the letter, and brings to light the candidates' foibles. Decency triumphs. If this were music, it would be praised and played at daybreak, admired for its sinuousness and structure. Its flaws are Isabel's flaws - and for that it is all the better, all the more human.