Review

Corduroy Mansions

by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith has succeeded in establishing a niche of
his own in popular fiction. His No. 1 Ladies’ Detective
Agency
mysteries launched him as one of the world’s best
known and beloved writers. Not content to rest on his laurels, he
went on to create new, non-mystery novels starring the denizens of
an Edinburgh apartment building at 44 Scotland Street, and another
featuring the wise and philosophical Isobel Dalhousie and her
circle of friends and colleagues. In each of these series, we meet
a charming coterie of neighbors, friends, lovers and co-workers
whose lives intermingle in fascinating and often amusing ways. The
stories serve as a charming guide to Edinburgh, and through the
eyes of the characters, we learn some fairly astonishing bits of
Scottish history, geography and culture, served up with
considerable wry wit.

With CORDUROY MANSIONS, McCall Smith has now moved house to
London. The plotting is familiar, in that the people who live in
the genteel and stately townhouse very near, but not quite in the
more posh area of London, also represent a broad variety of
personalities, livelihoods, income levels and ages.

The widowed William, a successful London wine merchant, has
occupied the top floor of the building longer than anyone else in
the house. William would be content to batch it in the comfortable
rooms by himself, but his 25-year-old unemployed son, Eddie,
adheres to the old adage of “to the manor born,” even
though the manor is a flat in a London townhome. Eddie is bent on
staying in his father’s home, assuring him that he is there
to care for him until he becomes old and infirm, then can inherit
it and the business. William’s lady friend differs with this
idea and is cooking up schemes to boot Eddie from the premises so
she can move in to take care of William, who needs no care at all.
This includes bringing a dog into the household to dislodge Eddie,
who hates dogs. Freddie de la Hay, a Pimlico terrier recently
retired as a drug-sniffing dog at Heathrow, is adopted by William
as a way to dislodge Eddie. It doesn’t work, but
Freddie’s well-schooled nose leads to adventures for
everyone.

Jennifer, who shares the third floor flat with three other young
women, works as the personal assistant to a loathsome Member of
Parliament with the Dickensian name of Oedipus Snark, who seems not
to have a friend in the world. Snark is distrusted and disliked by
even those closest to him. His mistress, Barbara, a successful
partner in a publishing house, sees the advantages of being the
wife of an MP, despite her personal feelings for the man.
Oedipus’s mother, a prominent London psychologist, has
decided to write a tell-all biography of her son, whom she also
detests. She moves in with her brother, an eccentric and wealthy
old man who manages to bumble through life. This entourage
surrounding the MP lends a political twist to the story, adding
drama and surprising turns.

McCall Smith is at his best when he offers his stream of
consciousness observations on societal ills, culture gaps, and the
loss of civility among the young. An amusing exchange arises in a
hallway conversation between the 50-year-old William and one of the
pretty young women in the downstairs flat. She refers to her
roommate’s boss, MP Oedipus Snark, as a creep, which prompts
William to launch a historical note about CREEP --- the Committee
to Re-Elect the President --- and the scandal surrounding Richard
Nixon. The blank stare returned by the young lady reminds him that
she was probably born 20 years after the Watergate scandal, and the
depressing age gap is brought home when she doesn’t recognize
the name of Margaret Thatcher.

As ever, McCall Smith is droll, philosophical, full of original
insights, and above all, entertaining. CORDUROY MANSIONS is a
pleasant read that relieves us from the constant hammering of
distant wars, celebrity misbehavior, spewing oil and unemployment.
What better and more welcome diversion as we ourselves bumble
through the long, hot summer of 2010.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 28, 2010

Corduroy Mansions
by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0307379086
  • ISBN-13: 9780307379085