The Careful Use of Compliments
Over the past decade, Alexander McCall Smithknown familiarly as “Sandy”has become one of the most prolific, best-known, and best-loved Scottish writers of his time. That is quite a feat, given the accomplishments of two of his near neighbors in their leafy suburb in the south of Edinburgh: Ian Rankin, author of the long-running tartan noir crime series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus and, of course, J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.
Contemporary Edinburgh writers began capturing the world’s attention with the publication of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in 1993, which deals with no-hopers from Edinburgh’s least touristy parts. McCall Smith shot to fame five years later, with the publication of the whimsically titled The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana, a country bordering Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia, where McCall Smith was born). Its success has resulted in a series that now comprises eight volumes, with more expected and a film currently in production. Success begetting success, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series spawned the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series (three volumes, 2003) and The Sunday Philosophy Club series (currently four volumes, 2004-2007)a prim and proper title reminiscent of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)set this time in Edinburgh’s upscale southern suburbs, close to the author’s own neighborhood. Inspired by San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1978), McCall Smith penned a serial novel, 44 Scotland Street (2005), published in the Scotsman newspaper and set on the northern fringes of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment-inspired New Town, close to Trainspotting’s Leith Walk, but a world away nonetheless. Its inevitable success resulted in a new series, now three novels long. With a collection of short stories, several children’s books, and numerous academic texts on medical law also to his credit, McCall Smith has recently retired from his professorship at the University of Edinburgh in order to devote himself full time to his writing: a daunting if delightful prospect for his many devoted readers.
The Careful Use of Compliments is the latest installment in the series that began with the hugely popular The Sunday Philosophy Club. Isabel Dalhousie is now a little older butformula fiction being what it isis just as beset by a succession of philosophical problems, or more specifically, ethical dilemmas, which pile up in the novel the way dead bodies do in a crime novel or sexual situations in a porn film. Isabel is McCall Smith’s variation on a well-worn type. She is the amateur philosopher turned armchair sleuth trying to solve a mystery involving a painting’s authenticity. That, however, may be the least of Isabel’s many problems. Isabel is a single mother trying to juggle a part-time career and parenting; well-heeled enough not to have to work, Isabel can also afford a reliable full-time caregiver for her child. The presence of the caregiver, Grace, makes the juggling easier while also raising additional ethical dilemmas, about parenting, for Isabel, who is as addicted to ethics as Trainspotting’s characters are to heroin. The guilt Isabel feels as a result of her ethical questioning is less a burden to be carried than a gentle but unrelenting prod to thinking about right action. Should Isabel take on more parenting duties? Should she accept the marriage proposal from Jamie, the baby’s father, a struggling musician (like McCall Smith, a bassoonist) much younger than herself? Should she (and Jamie) accept a dinner invitation from her niece Cat, Jamie’s former lover (and contemporary)? Should she buy a painting that costs more than what Jamie makes in a year and is a larger version of the one her father bought and that still hangs in her home, which she inherited, along with the rest of the estate, from her parents (Scottish father, American mother), which is her source of income? Should she accept being deposed as editor of the Review of Ethical Philosophya low-paid part-time positionor fight in order to save not just her own position but the journal from those who would use it to advance their careers and the postmodern views that she and apparently her author find distasteful?
That Isabel is a decidedly decent person is the worst that can be said of herand the best. She is conservatism’s version of the bien-pensant liberal, what George W. Bush would call “compassionate conservative,” holding forth, while holding the ethical high ground, on SUVs, immigration, even the executions of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauescu and his wife Elena. When Jamiewho is nice but not well informedasks whether Elena Ceauescu has been...
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