No Worries for Miss Marple:
The Sunday Philosophy Club
Is this a mid-life crisis I’m having? Nah, it couldn’t be. I went through all of that a good ten years ago now.
It’s strange, though. That’s twice in two weeks that I’ve fallen in love. Earlier it was with a film; and you can read about The Best Offer elsewhere on this blog. This time it’s with a woman. Well, admittedly she’s a fictional one and only lives between the pages of a series of novels. Still, it’s strange, just the same. She’s not the kind I’d normally be attracted to. In fact she’s really a bit of a snob, even though I’m sure that Isabel Dalhousie herself would be shocked if you told her that.
Yes, The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first book featuring that charming Scots-American lady and comes from the pen of Alexander McCall Smith. I was completely unfamiliar with Mr. Smith’s previous (and very successful) series featuring the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, so I was going into this one cold, which is how I like it. In fact, any time I had glanced at his name in the past I had misread it as Alexandra; and that, coupled with the ‘Ladies Detective’ business had made me think the writer was a woman. So, going in extra-cold.
What an absolute delight this book is. I’ve been to its setting in Dalhousie’s home town of Edinburgh many, many times and Smith captures the beauty of that wonderful city perfectly. As to Isabel herself, what an utterly frustrating, enchanting, annoying, brilliant woman she is. I would love to have her as a friend, even though we would undoubtedly fall out with some regularity.
From the internal evidence of the book I’m going to put her age at 42. She is described as an ‘attractive woman, sexy’, who is single although still partially in love with an Irishman and bit of a cad who had broken her heart years ago. (‘Bit of a cad’ is the kind of expression that she would use, actually.) She also has quite a crush on her niece Cat’s young ex-boyfriend, Jamie; and that’s the kind of thing that would cause Isabel sleepless nights. She is, you see, the editor of a publication called the Review of Applied Ethics; and by God does this woman live her job. She worries endlessly about the ethics and morality of almost every situation that she finds herself in—and this is amusing because she is really a bit of a nosy cow, if the truth be told.
Miss Dalhousie’s Concept of ‘Busy’
Isabel can cause your mouth to drop open at times. For all her brains, she can be lacking in cop-on and seems to see her privileged position a little differently to how this reader does. I mean, dig it: thanks to inherited money she has a full-time housekeeper (Grace, a take-no-prisoners-type with an interest in spiritualism) who has her breakfast ready for her when she gets up and then retires to the morning room—as you do—to complete the crossword. Then she might wander down town to have lunch with Cat, who owns her own delicatessen. In the evening she’ll attend a concert at the Usher Hall or perhaps go to an Art Gallery opening night and buy a painting for her large collection. In fact, throw in a few trips to the movies and it’s a life I would aspire to. And yet, here’s Isabel:
“People thought, quite wrongly, that Isabel had time on her hands. They looked at her situation as that of a woman of independent means, living in a large house, looked after by a full-time housekeeper and with a part-time job as editor of some obscure journal that presumably had flexible deadlines. How could such a person be busy? they thought. Their own lives, in jobs which made more and more demands, were quite different, they imagined.”
Uhhh…yeah. Which part are they getting wrong exactly, Isabel my sweet?
Anyway, it is at the Usher Hall, just having attended a concert, that Isabel’s hectic, busy life of rush, chaos and crosswords is intruded on as a young man falls to his death in front of her eyes. Needless to say, since she has been the last person on earth that he has seen, she feels a moral obligation to find out more about him. That’s our Isabel.
The problem is that—how can I put this delicately?—as an amateur sleuth Isabel isn’t exactly the best. She may think that she’s a cut above the average person but on the evidence of at least this initial outing, she can’t solve mysteries to save her life. Put it this way, Miss Marple she ain’t.
The Sunday Philosophy Club will be way too slow for someone who likes his crime novels to zip along; but to me that will be missing the point. What is fascinating is the endless detail on Isabel’s life, not to mention her environment. And I found myself, at the end of most chapters, looking up a name that I was unfamiliar with, such as the painter Elizabeth Blackadder, just as an example. Read for relaxation and learn something new at the same time. I’m really into that.
But yes, I can see how this novel would drive some people demented. Smith will introduce a character—for example the journalist from one of the ‘lower papers’– and then go precisely nowhere with them. And the ending will without a doubt piss many off. And yet I saw it as just perfect– a good example of how random and meaningless life can be and should lend itself to an interesting debate on applying justice, which seems appropriate for a book with such a title.
This is from 2004 and so I’m going to enjoy working my way through the rest of the series. To put it as Isabel Dalhousie possibly would: I simply adored this book.