Isabel Dalhousie, the editor and publisher of a philosophical quarterly on applied ethics, once again finds herself on the horns of a personal dilemma just as another is thrust upon her, unsolicited, by an acquaintance. As her husband, Jamie, is reluctantly learning to accept, Isabel is incapable of ignoring a plea for guidance through murky psychological waters, even when they are in her own home.
Wealthy Scotsman Duncan Munrowe discovers that a valuable painting by Nicholas Poussin has been stolen from his private collection during an open house art tour. A mutual friend begs Isabel’s help in counseling Munrowe on whether to barter with the thieves for ransom or accept the money from the insurance company. She learns that all he really wants is to see the painting, valued at €5 million Euros, returned so that he can fulfill his promise to donate it to the Scottish National Gallery.
"The Dalhousie novels often are soulful, wise and sometimes humorous ruminations on everyday events. They are seldom page-turners, but in today’s angst-filled world, they offer a serene stroll through calmer pastures."
Meanwhile, three-year-old Charlie, Isabel and Jamie’s son, suddenly starts multiplying and dividing objects and numbers. They timorously wonder if they’ve begotten a veritable Mozart of math in their young son --- a prodigy whose childhood could be upended by becoming a media sensation. They are somewhat relieved when they discover that Isabel’s longtime housekeeper and companion, Grace, who watches Charlie while they are at work, has started using a controversial book that advocates for teaching math to toddlers. Charlie takes to it eagerly, but his parents have mixed emotions about someone assuming what they consider their responsibility, not to mention the possibility that Charlie may develop some bad learning habits. Their concern grows into a severe disagreement with Grace, ending in her abrupt resignation. With all of Isabel’s skills at steering others through troubled waters, she once again discovers that she’s often inept when it comes to setting her own course. She deputizes Jamie to settle Grace’s ruffled feathers while she pursues the art thieves.
The police and insurance company are treating the theft as a burglary, but as she talks with Munrowe’s family and a lawyer who claims to represent the thieves, she begins to focus on an inside job --- perhaps even within the family. The problem is motive. A genuine mystery unfolds, a rarity in the Isabel Dalhousie novels, which, throughout the eight prior books, have explored ethical conundrums. It could be said that Alexander McCall Smith, himself a professor of bioethics and law, perhaps ponders life’s philosophical mysteries through Isabel’s frequent wool-gathering mental meanderings. She offers bits of wisdom, often quoting W H Auden, or her attention drifts to random thoughts while listening to someone drone on in a conversation.
Isabel succeeds in concluding a continuing side story concerning Eddie, the assistant at her niece’s coffee shop. He finally discloses what has been the source of his melancholy, and Isabel offers her help in resolving a dreaded but very real fear that has been hanging over Eddie since she has known him. As she and Jamie discuss Eddie’s situation, she remarks that some feelings need to be calibrated. He asks what she means by calibrating.
“All our emotions and feelings. Shame. Anger. Love. Pain. Calibration is required if we are to use them sensitively.”
“How do you calibrate pain?” Jamie asks.
“By cutting out the background pain of the world,” answered Isabel. “By not registering it, and responding only to those painful things that we can do something about. Because otherwise we couldn’t get on with our day-to-day lives. The pain of the world would burden us too much.”
The Dalhousie novels often are soulful, wise and sometimes humorous ruminations on everyday events. They are seldom page-turners, but in today’s angst-filled world, they offer a serene stroll through calmer pastures.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 2, 2012