Book review: The Uncommon Appeal 
Of Clouds

IF ALEXANDER McCall Smith were ever to float himself on the stock exchange you’d be mad not to grab a slice. His purring production line – boasting more than 80 titles and four discrete series of entertainments – never shuts; it runs on few overheads and saturates consumers with an unquenchable thirst for more.

The Uncommon Appeal 
Of Clouds

Alexander McCall Smith

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Little Brown, £17.99

Already we are on to the ninth in his series featuring Isabel Dalhousie who, as well as an Edinburgh philosopher is also a wife (of Jamie, a musician, who is handsome beyond the call of natural selection), mother (of Charlie, a cute but calculating toddler), and editor/owner of the Review Of Applied Ethics. There is little evidence that this ethics girl ever sleeps – she is too busy carefully weighing the meaning of words and phrases for moral import or intent, detecting the bright side of all situations, whilst not losing sight of her own potential for succumbing to errant temptations.

Nonetheless, Dalhousie is 
an ­ordinary heroine – ­approachable in a reader-friendly way as well as exceptional in her ability to empathise with and infiltrate the motives of those around her.

Dalhousie admirers will enjoy the domestic progress of Isabel’s life: her continuing love affair with Jamie, the parabola of parenthood (Charlie’s first steps towards mathematical genius), her troubled relationship with the volatile housekeeper Grace, whose devotion to Jamie leads, inadvertently, to friction.

In The Uncommon Appeal Of Clouds, the central dilemma requiring Isabel’s moral acuity and philosophical focus concerns the theft of a valuable masterpiece by Poussin from the grand house of wealthy landowner Duncan Munrowe. Called upon, thanks to her reputation for helping those in a quandary, Isabel gradually immerses herself in tricky negotiations with the thieves, who demand a ransom for the picture’s safe return.

In doing so her gaze takes in a widening field of suspects: might the thief be Duncan himself, or either, or both, of his grown-up children, one feeling unloved (with a possible grudge), the other in ­circumstances where money is of the essence, and neither happy to see the Poussin left to the nation on Duncan’s death, as their father has pledged?

Jamie fears for Isabel’s safety — the thief is in league with a gang of thugs. There are parallel storylines – how will the lad who works at the deli where Isabel eats resolve his love life? Will housekeeper Grace return to work after resigning over Charlie? And how can Isabel deal with a controversial submission to the Review?

McCall Smith steers his heroine subtly through these ­moral/emotional minefields, humouring her while she muses on a plethora of subjects – whole paragraphs, even pages, are given over to the contemplation of opera, to Scott and Proust, to the Scottish diet, cucumbers, and how to recognise signs of lying. To raise an eyebrow at how a woman in middle age has not already worked out her position on such matters might seem churlish.

During the course of dealing successfully with the business of the Poussin, she shows herself willing to take a huge risk with her reputation, leaving certain pertinent issues up in the air. More than appropriate for a story that vaunts and ­appreciates the uncommon ­appeal of clouds. «