In his new mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith has moved a long way from his comfort zone --- nearly 6,000 miles in fact, a number that represents the distance from Gaborone, Botswana to Edinburgh, Scotland. Botswana, as many readers surely know, is the setting for Smith's immensely popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series while Edinburgh is home to Smith's latest undertaking, THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB, billed as an "Isabel Dalhousie mystery."
Isabel Dalhousie, a quiet woman of independent means and a certain age, seems an unlikely gumshoe. As the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel would seem more at home in a university philosophy department than dealing with the sordid details of murder most foul. But we, as Isabel would certainly agree, do not always choose our circumstances; at times they choose us.
In Isabel's case, circumstances cause her to witness an unfortunate death, a young man's fall from a symphony hall balcony. "Her first thought, curiously, was of Auden's poem on the fall of Icarus. Such events, said Auden, occur against a background of people going about their ordinary business. They do not look up and see the boy falling from the sky. I was talking to a friend, she thought. I was talking to a friend and the boy fell out of the sky." Isabel decides she has a moral duty to investigate the circumstances of the young man's death, being as she would have been the last person he saw before his death.
The trail winds her through the worlds of Scottish art and high finance before she reaches a conclusion. Along the way Isabel is confounded by a bushel of moral dilemmas. Does she have a duty to speak truthfully to a reporter who is bent on exploiting the grief of the victim's family? Should she expose an unfaithful boyfriend to a family member? And ultimately, once she discovers the truth of the situation, what should she do with that knowledge?
Isabel's progress can be slightly ponderous at times. Deciding whether or not she should even act at all takes up nearly the first 100 pages of Isabel's story, and since the book weighs in at only 247 pages, that's a high percentage of inaction. Once Isabel finally does decide to get involved, the story picks up and Smith provides more than enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing until the very end. Since Isabel is a philosopher at heart, she tends to analyze each and every situation from a philosophical perspective. "There was a distinction between lying and telling half-truths, but it was a very narrow one. Isabel had herself written a short article on the matter, following the publication of Sissela Bok's philosophical monograph, Lying. She had argued for a broad interpretation, which imposed a duty to answer questions truthfully, and not to hide facts which could give a different complexion to the matter…" The tone is a bit daunting for readers who never progressed beyond Philosophy 101 in college.
Once one adjusts to the tone, it is easy to warm to THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB. Isabel has quite a cast of characters orbiting around her. Her opinionated (the less charitable among us might say bossy) housekeeper Grace, her self-sufficient niece Cat, and Cat's ex-boyfriend Jamie will hopefully all return in subsequent books. Smith does a wonderful job of imparting a sense of place along with the characters. Edinburgh, with all its quirks and charms, shines brightly throughout the novel. Fans of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective series should easily be able to take these Scottish characters into their hearts as easily as they did the ones in Botswana.
Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran on January 23, 2011