The Charming Quirks of Others is the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. This is my favourite of his series. I love Isabel & her moral dilemmas. I love the picture of Edinburgh he paints, the refined, upper middle class Edinburgh rather than the criminal underbelly Edinburgh of Ian Rankin’s books. In some ways these series could be set in the 1930s, that most middlebrow of decades. The Isabel Dalhousie books were first classified as crime because McCall Smith was known as the very successful author of the No 1 Ladies Detective series. But they’re not really crime novels. The crimes, if any, are moral crimes, rarely the sort of crime that leads to police investigations & charges.
Isabel is a moral detective. She leads an enviable life – well, at least I envy it. She has inherited wealth (she contemplates buying a Raeburn portrait in this book), she has a lovely house, work she enjoys as editor & owner of the Review of Applied Ethics, is engaged to Jamie & the mother of Charlie. On the downside she has a spiky relationship with her niece, Cat, who was Jamie’s girlfriend. Even though Cat & Jamie had parted before Isabel’s relationship with him began, Cat is still resentful & Isabel is eager to try & rebuild their relationship. Cat owns a deli, I love the luscious descriptions of the food, & Isabel helps out from time to time.
Isabel has also earned a reputation for discreetly looking into problems & she finds it difficult to refuse to help when asked. Having coffee in the deli one day she meets Jillian McKinley, an acquaintance who is the wife of the trustee of a prestigious school. A new Principal is to be appointed & the candidates are down to a shortlist of three. The trustees have received an anonymous letter warning that one of the candidates has something shameful in his past that could embarrass the school. Unfortunately, the letter doesn’t name names. Jillian wants Isabel to look into the backgrounds of the candidates & save the school from making an expensive mistake. Isabel reluctantly agrees &, through her network of friends, discovers a little about two of the men. One of them turns out to be Cat’s new boyfriend which throws Isabel into another moral dilemma. Is it right for her to continue investigating when she finds herself hoping that Gordon will get the job? Another candidate may have been involved in the death of a climber on an expedition to Mt Everest. Could he have left a fellow climber to die on the mountain in his ambition to reach the summit?
Isabel’s relationship with Jamie is also changing. Jamie is very eager to get married but Isabel seems reluctant to take this step. She feels a little insecure because Jamie is younger than her &, when a friend tells Isabel that he saw Jamie at the cinema on a night when she thought he was rehearsing (he’s a musician), she is quick to think of betrayal & unfaithfulness. Especially as Jamie has told her about Prue, a young woman in the group who has confided in him about her terminal illness & needs his support.
This book is really a drama, rather than a comedy, of manners, with Isabel striving to do the right thing by Jamie, Cat, Jillian & herself. She does tend to tie herself in knots with her feelings of guilt about her good fortune & happiness but hopefully by the end of the book, Isabel is starting to relax a little & believe in her good luck. However, I’m not completely convinced by the strength of Jamie & Isabel’s relationship. I feel a little like Isabel about it, it’s too good to be true. Jamie seems a little too anxious to be married. Does he fear that the relationship won’t last if they aren’t married? Does he feel a little inferior to Isabel with her money & beautiful house? In some ways I think Jamie is too shallow & Isabel is too deep. Probably this is just because we see the action through Isabel’s eyes & she’s a much more clearly defined character than Jamie. I’ll have to wait until the next book to find out.
*If you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions serial, a new instalment has just started in the Telegraph this wek. You can follow it here. Only four chapters in so easy to catch up.