The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is the latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel is a woman with everything – & she worries about whether she deserves her good fortune. She has inherited money, lives in a beautiful house in a lovely part of Edinburgh & she owns & edits a philosophical review. She’s married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. Isabel is known for helping people with their problems. She’s not a conventional detective, she’s really a philosophical or moral detective.
Isabel is a philosopher & she has a tendency to over-analyse any situation & reproach herself for any shortcomings in kindness or helpfulness. When she meets a friend, Martha Drummond, she describes her as a heart-sink friend. I think that’s the most wonderful description of someone whose appearance has just that effect. Our hearts sink as they’re sure to either put us on the spot or put us in the wrong. Martha has this effect on Isabel. No matter what they discuss, Martha manages to either take umbrage or cause offense. This time she wants Isabel to help a friend of hers. Duncan Munrowe is a wealthy man with a considerable estate & a magnificent art collection. One of his most prized paintings by Poussin has been stolen & the thieves have sent a ransom demand to Duncan’s insurers. Martha wants Isabel to help Duncan negotiate with the thieves.
Isabel agrees to meet Duncan & ultimately she agrees to accompany Duncan to a meeting with a lawyer representing the thieves & eventually a potentially dangerous meeting with the thieves themselves. She also meets Duncan’s two children & discovers that relationships within the family are complicated. The more she discovers about the Munrowes, the more tangled the puzzle of the stolen painting becomes.
Isabel is also dealing with her own family dilemmas. We don’t see her spiky niece, Cat, only hear about a particularly nasty bout of gastro that keeps her away from the deli she runs, leading Isabel to offer her help for a few days. Cat’s assistant, Eddie, has a new girlfriend & a worrying personal problem that Isabel tries to help him with. Isabel & Jamie are also wondering if Charlie is a mathematical prodigy. Isabel worries about whether they should encourage his genius or just let him be. She has a horror of being a pushy mother & also of ignoring Charlie’s potential. When it turns out that Grace, Isabel’s housekeeper, has been teaching Charlie maths, Isabel is relieved but then concerned that Grace should interfere in this way. Another moral dilemma that leads to a confrontation with the easily-offended Grace. Isabel does a lot of tiptoeing around people in this book!
I do enjoy this series. I don’t think Isabel would be an easy person to live with. Her constant questioning of every action & interaction with her conscience & other people would be very tiring. However, she has the luxury to be able to spend time thinking & questioning her motives & actions. Most people have to get on with life hoping for the best. Isabel is so aware of her blessings that she’s sometimes afraid to just enjoy them. I love her civilized life in Edinburgh with visits to Cat’s deli, conversations about art & music & her happy contentment with Jamie & Charlie. I enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh novels best & it’s always lovely to spend a few hours with Isabel & her moral dilemmas.