I think it was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right. The latest McCall Smith opus, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, is a gentle romp through the world of land girls, war-time romance and an exceptional pet – the amusingly-named sheepdog that gives the book its title. The dog is called Peter Woodhouse due to a misunderstanding on the part of sweet but slightly simple-minded Willy, who saw the name – the brand of a removal company – on the side of the dog’s crate and adopted the unlikely moniker. Whether he is called Peter Woodhouse or Fido is largely irrelevant to the plot, yet the name is almost certainly intended to evoke a further layer of cosiness, unconsciously reminding the reader of PG Wodehouse and that sense of carefree, tea-drinking Britishness which suffuses his work.
When land girl Val Eliot agrees to look after Peter after a fellow farm worker rescues him from a cruel neighbouring farm, she discovers that the safest place for the dog to live is with her American airman boyfriend, Mike, on the nearby US base. Proving himself to be an out-of-the-ordinary pooch, Peter soon becomes an active member of the US Air Force, where he has a closer encounter with the enemy than anyone could have expected.
Written in McCall Smith’s inimitably chatty and readable style, the story chugs along nicely, despite a somewhat two dimensional aspect to some of his characters: Mike is an all-American, all round good egg; Val is attractive and marginally feisty. The wartime scenes in England are comforting and nostalgic, but the narrative takes a twist when we end up in Germany with former German soldier Ubi – a kind German, no less – who is trying to rebuild his life and has some weird and wonderful ambitions.
The scenes involving the Motodrom – a kind of motorcycle acrobatics machine – while entertaining, are slightly incongruous and of little relevance to the plot. It seems to be something the author has come across at some point and has been dying to put into a novel. And why not this one? It works for me.
Of course, the story is not all happiness for Peter and his friends – there are trials and tragedies along the way. But fans of McCall Smith’s other work will not be disappointed by this latest novel.
*The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, by Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, 240pp, £14.99