(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although he has written more than fifty books over a long career, Alexander McCall Smith is best known for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series novels featuring Precious Ramotswe, a woman of traditional build who solves mysteries in Gaborone, Botswana. The first five volumes of that series, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), sold more than five million copies and were translated into more than thirty languages. Readers were charmed by Mma Ramotswe and her gentleness, her optimism, and her affirming insights into human nature. With The Sunday Philosophy Club, McCall Smith begins a new series, also featuring a woman detective with a sense that people are basically good.

Isabel Dalhousie, the main character, is an independently wealthy, middle-aged woman living in Edinburgh. Her mind is of a philosophical bent, and she is editor of a scholarly journal, “The Review of Applied Ethics,” as well as head of an informal group that calls itself the Sunday Philosophy Club. She listens to classical music, collects valuable paintings, and begins her mornings with a cup of coffee and the crossword puzzle. She sips tea while working on manuscripts in the afternoon and sips good wine while chatting with friends in the evening. Like her spiritual cousin Precious Ramotswe, she is motivated by a genuine desire to live a good life, rather than by greed or jealousy.

As in the books of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series, there is no violence and no blood in The Sunday Philosophy Club. Isabel is attending a thoroughly civilized concert by the Reykjavik Symphony at Usher Hall when she happens to see, in the novel's first sentence, a young man fall to his death from “the gods,” or the hall's highest balcony. Although the death is horrible and sad, even when describing the body, the narrator's gaze remains firmly on the intimate details of the young man's humanity, “his legs twisted over the arms of the neighboring seats, one foot …without a shoe, but stockinged.” Although it kills him, the fall from up high leaves the victim with a “halo of tousled dark hair and the fine features, undamaged.”

While the authorities examine the body and then take it away, Isabel climbs to the upper balcony to look for clues. She has none of the swagger or feisty impertinence of other amateur detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey or Miss Marple; in fact, when a man below sees her looking down from the balcony, Isabel is embarrassed: “What must he have thought of her?”

Isabel's decision to investigate the death is a reluctant one, and slow in coming. The morning after the young man falls, she tries to tell her housekeeper, Grace, about it, but her mind wanders, first to a memory of two Scottish poets and then to a long-ago news story about a man falling to his death on his honeymoon in South America. Trying to settle in with the crossword puzzle, Isabel reflects on the man who died, wondering, “Would she have felt differently if he had been somebody older? Would there have been the same poignancy had the lolling head been grey, the face lined with age rather than youthful?” She does not find the answer, but for whatever reason, the death nags at her.

It turns out that Isabel's niece, Cat, owner of a coffeehouse and delicatessen, slightly knew the dead man, Mark Fraser, because he lived in her neighborhood and was an occasional customer. Isabel's conversation with Cat, intended as an airing of Isabel's thoughts about the death, becomes instead a discussion of Cat's new boyfriend, Toby. Isabel invites them to dinner and develops an instant (and astute) dislike for the pretentious Toby, who wears corduroy trousers the color of crushed strawberries.

Listening to Cat and Toby, Isabel begins to reflect on the wonderful qualities of her own college lover, John Liamor. Brilliant, handsome and condescending, he was as arrogant and thoughtless as Isabel was reasonable and kind. Eventually they were married, in a way, but he soon proved...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)