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Book review: 'The Charming Quirks of Others' by Alexander McCall Smith

The author makes a return visit to his genteel Edinburgh sleuth Isabel Dalhousie. Yes, it meanders a bit, but where's the crime in that?

January 02, 2011|By Paula L. Woods | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Alexander McCall Smith sets the series in Edinburgh.
Alexander McCall Smith sets the series in Edinburgh. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

The Charming Quirks of Others

An Isabel Dalhousie Novel

Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon: 256 pp., $24.95

When writing or reading mysteries, my touchstone has always been a quote by early 20th century novelist Charles Chesnutt: "The greatest mystery is the human heart." And while some would argue that there must be a vicious crime (the more heinous the better) to enliven a mystery, Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and other contemporary cozies have proved that crimes need not be punishable by death to provide a satisfying read.

"The Charming Quirks of Others": A Jan. 2 review of Alexander McCall Smith's novel "The Charming Quirks of Others," the latest in his Isabel Dalhousie series, referred to Isabel's fiance, Jamie, as a cellist. He plays the bassoon. —

Smith, in particular, pushed the envelope with the Botswana-based novels, which were as remarkable for the great humanity of sleuth Precious Ramotswe and her love for the people and places of southern Africa as they were for the investigations she undertook. A second series featuring Scottish American Isabel Dalhousie has followed a similar path by highlighting the relationships among the fortysomething moral philosopher and her circle in an idyllic Edinburgh that has more in common with Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead than the gritty Edinburgh of Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector John Rebus mysteries.

In this seventh outing, Isabel is reveling in her love for her 2-year-old, Charlie, and her fiancé, Jamie, an "exquisite, gentle young man who had come so unexpectedly into her life." Jamie, a cellist, is significantly younger than Isabel and once dated Isabel's niece Cat, the former of which gives Isabel considerably more anxiety than the lingering awkwardness with her niece.

Awkwardness aside, Isabel is a most fortunate soul, not only for her newfound familial bliss but also for a comfortable existence that allows her to consider buying a rare Raeburn painting at a Christie's auction, editing the obscure philosophy journal Review of Applied Ethics and engaging in helping people, a trait Jamie considers meddling but which Isabel feels is a higher calling: "A meddler did not necessarily interfere for the good of somebody else — meddlers as often as not had their own interests in mind, or were driven by vulgar curiosity." Moreover, she reasons, "meddling was interfering unasked; she was always asked."

This time, the request comes from Jillian Mackinlay, wife of the chair of the board of a local boys' school. The headmaster has resigned to accept a post in Singapore and the board must select a successor from a short list of three candidates. But the board's decision is complicated by an anonymous letter asserting that one of the candidates would bring embarrassment to the school if selected. Could it be John Fraser, a teacher whose zest for mountain-climbing may have cost a man his life? Or Tom Simpson, a dullard who may have lied about his credentials? Or Gordon Leafers, a charming young man who just happens to be dating Cat?

Isabel's leaps in logic, chance encounters and circuitous methods of learning more about the three men would probably drive John Rebus to his single-malt Scotch, but they provide the sleuth (and Smith) with ample opportunity to philosophize on everything from mountaineering ethics to the charming quirks of those, and those places, we love.

Such musings or the many subplots — involving Isabel's insecurities about marrying a man 15 years her junior and a distraught female musician in Jamie's orchestra whose terminal illness strains the couple's bond — may frustrate those accustomed to a more straightforward narrative, yet they ultimately serve to endear the characters to the reader and make "The Charming Quirks of Others" a genteel, wisdom-filled alternative to more adrenaline-pumping, anxiety-producing entertainments.

Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series and a contributor to The Times.

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