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John Wilson


Isabel Dalhousie's latest adventures.

An interviewer asked Alexander McCall Smith how long it took to write one of his novels. McCall Smith smilingly dodged the question. Given his rate of production, the answer must be "not very long." But what does it matter? After all, Dan Brown required years to complete The Lost Symbol.

Best known for the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency—ten books in this splendid series have already appeared, and No. 11, The Double Comfort Safari Club, is due in April from Pantheon—McCall Smith also maintains several other lines. Most of these have turned out not to be my cup of tea. One notable exception is the series set in Edinburgh featuring Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. Launched in September 2004 with The Sunday Philosophy Club, the series has proceeded with pleasing regularity, a new book coming each fall, most recently The Lost Art of Gratitude.

Like the adventures of Mma Ramotswe in Botswana, these tales centering on Isabel Dalhousie are severely stylized, though with a different set of conventions, drawn chiefly from the comedy of manners, with a few borrowings from the light mystery genre and a strong element of what be called philosophical comedy, the most distinctive quality of the books. At times we see Isabel at work as an editor—reading manuscripts, for instance, and reflecting on the way a particular philosophical problem has been treated. Even here, comedy may enter in, as it does in this book when Isabel's antagonist, the odious Professor Dove, pops up again, aided and abetted by Professor Lettuce. But much more often we get Isabel as the Philosopher of Everyday Life:

If a transcription of our day's speech would make uncomfortable reading, how much more dismaying, perhaps, would be a record of our thoughts. For a moment she imagined how it would look …. Isabel paused, unwilling to reach a conclusion so solipsistic, but unable to avoid it: the leitmotiv would be me. It was that simple. Most of us, most of the time, were ...

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