The Novel Habits of Happiness – Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher. She lives in Edinburgh, she’s wealthy (she bought the applied ethics journal she edits when it was under attack from rivals), married to Jamie & the mother of three year old Charlie. All these advantages worry Isabel, even though she is philanthropic, kind & always ready to help anyone in need, especially when their problem has a moral or ethical dimension. Isabel’s relationship with her niece, Cat, is another source of worry. Cat is not much younger than Isabel & was once involved with Jamie. This hasn’t helped their relationship & Cat, who is a prickly woman, takes offence very easily while also presuming on Isabel’s good nature when she needs help. Cat also had terrible taste in men & has just gone off to Paris for a weekend with the latest man, leaving Isabel to help out in her delicatessen at short notice. Isabel’s social prejudices are on show when Eddie tells her that Cat’s new boyfriend is a dishwasher repairman & is then surprised by his knowledge of art & poetry. She also has to adjust her ideas about a colleague, Professor Robert Lettuce, who has made her professional life very difficult. She discovers that Lettuce is in line for a senior post at the Enlightenment Institute at the University of Edinburgh which disconcerts her. However, after meeting Lettuce’s wife, Clementine, & finding out a little more about the man & his motivations, she has to reassess her instinctive dislike of a man she has considered a personal enemy.

When a friend of Isabel’s asks her help for a neighbour, Isabel agrees to meet the woman, Kirsten, who’s concerned about her son. Seven year old Harry has begun talking about another life, his “other family”, & his mother is worried about his mental stability. Kirsten has recently separated from her husband so is Harry’s preoccupation with another family just a reaction to the separation or is it really evidence of reincarnation? Isabel agrees to look into it even though she’s profoundly sceptical about reincarnation. Harry’s memories of the house he lived in are very specific & Isabel decides that a possible location is near a lighthouse on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. What Isabel discovers when she visits the house seems to put Harry’s memories down to chance but that isn’t the end of the story.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this latest instalment in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I seem to be reading fewer & fewer modern novels & I’ve stopped reading several authors for whose new books I was always first in the reservation queue. Although I borrowed this when it was published last year, I took it back unread. A couple of weeks ago, I suddenly decided the time was right & then sat down & read it in one sitting. I like Isabel, the Edinburgh setting, her musings about Scottish art (she visits Guy Peploe’s gallery this time & looks at an exhibition of Colourists), the visits of Brother Fox &, this time, the visit to the west coast of Scotland. I’m afraid Isabel’s endless worrying & musing drives me a little crazy & I can’t help wondering that if she had less money & had more to do, she wouldn’t have time to endlessly debate the ethics of her own & everyone else’s motives. But then, she is a philosopher & that’s what she’s like – there, I’m dithering just as much as Isabel! I also find Jamie a bit of a cipher – handsome, kind, endlessly supportive, great cook – but Isabel seems a little less inclined to question their relationship in this book.

I was also interested in the reincarnation theme. I’ve always been fascinated by reincarnation. As well as reading lots of time-slip novels over the years, I’ve also read quite a few more serious books on the subject, including the ones by Ian Stevenson that Isabel mentions. It’s one of those subjects, like the existence of ghosts, that can never really be proved one way or the other although there are certainly some very convincing stories about both phenomena. As a rational person with a leaning towards scientific explanations of the world, Isabel finds reincarnation hard to believe but she’s open minded enough to do some research as she pursues her investigation. The Novel Habits of Happiness was an enjoyable way to spend a cool summer afternoon & with the enticing hook of a new plot development at the end of the novel, I’ll look forward to the next book in the series.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers – Alexander McCall Smith

A new Scotland Street novel is always a treat even though I race through them in a day & then have to wait a year for the next instalment.

Bertie’s seventh birthday is finally approaching & he’s very excited – if only his mother, Irene, didn’t insist that he invite as many girls as boys to his birthday party. He would also love a penknife as a special birthday present from his parents but he knows that he’ll receive something non-violent & gender neutral instead. Art gallery owner Matthew & his wife, Elspeth are still getting used to being the parents of triplets. They decide that their wonderful Danish au pair, Anna, needs an assistant au pair but their choice isn’t a complete success.

Angus Lordie, newly married to Domenica, has started sleepwalking & is encouraged by Domenica to see a psychiatrist. They also have a fascinating conversation about the order in which we think of the names of our married friends. Domenica feels that the order of the names is important & Angus is quite sure that everyone thinks of them as Domenica & Angus rather than the other way around. When their friend, Antonia, writes from her convent in Tuscany to invite herself to stay for a few weeks while she finishes writing her book on early Scottish saints, Domenica analyses every phrase of her letter in great detail. Antonia arrives accompanied by a nun from the convent, Sister Maria-Fiore, who has a talent for stating the obvious. The unfortunate affair of the blue Spode cup has not been forgotten by Antonia & causes some uncomfortable moments for Angus & Domenica.

Pat McGregor’s love life seems to be improving when she meets an attractive young cabinet maker but their first date at a local bar becomes an embarrassment when Pat’s father arrives accompanied by a very odd woman. Coffee shop owner Big Lou is always unlucky in love but decides that although her romantic relationships have been disastrous, she has a lot of room in her heart & in her life & becomes foster mother to young Finlay.

Irene Pollock wins a trip to a literary festival Dubai in a competition & Bertie & Stuart are eager for her to go. The trip doesn’t turn out quite as Irene expected although Bertie & his father, while concerned for Irene’s safety, settle down to enjoy their unexpected freedom.

As always, there are some very funny moments in this book as well as some poignant ones. McCall Smith’s gentle humour & sense of the absurd is ever present & it’s always a joy to catch up with the residents of Scotland Street.

Sunday Poetry – W H Auden

I’ve been reading the new Scotland Street novel by Alexander McCall Smith so a poem by Auden is appropriate today as Auden is one of McCall Smith’s favourite poets. McCall Smith has just published a book about Auden called What W H Auden can do for you which is part personal memoir & part literary appreciation. So, here is As I Walked Out One Evening.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Just borrowed

Another lovely pile of books (and a DVD) that have just arrived at my library. I want to read all of them but I’m not sure how long it will take. Some of them may go back to the library a few times before I finally get to them.

Six Against the Yard is another of the wonderful Detection Club compilations that have been reprinted in recent years. This one features six authors – Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Croft & Russell Thorndike – who each attempt to create an unsolvable murder. A real life policeman, ex-Superintendent Cornish of the CID, attempts to work out what happened in each case. There’s also an essay by Agatha Christie about the unsolved Croydon mystery where several members of a family were poisoned with arsenic.

The Novel Cure : an A-Z of literary remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin – a book to dip in to as it has suggestions for what to read according to your mood. So, if you’re a Daddy’s girl, in need of a good cry, feeling tired & emotional, not taking enough risks or wishing you were a superhero, there’s a book for you.

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith – the latest Scotland Street book. Lovely!

Dorothea’s War by Dorothea Crewdson – the WWI diary of a nurse edited by her nephew. I’m looking forward to reading this for my Remembrance reading in November.

Bosworth : the birth of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore – I listened to a fascinating podcast from BBC History Magazine about this book. Skidmore actually ends with the battle, beginning his story with the birth of Henry Tudor & his life in exile. After reading Thomas Penn’s excellent biography of Henry, The Winter King, I’m keen to read this. The account of the battle has also been informed by the recent discovery of Richard III’s remains & the evidence of his final moments & burial. The discovery happened just as the author was completing his first draft.

Worlds of Arthur : facts and fictions of the Dark Ages by Guy Halsall – I find Arthur endlessly fascinating. Did he exist? What’s the historical, archaeological & literary evidence? I’m always ready to read another theory.

Band of Angels : the forgotten world of early Christian women by Kate Cooper – I read a review of this book & was immediately interested as it’s a subject & a period I know very little about. There were several women who were important in the spread of Christianity in the early years of the 1st & 2nd centuries. They were subsequently written out of the story as the Church become dominated by men although they are still there in the Gospels & other historical documents.

Now for the DVD. I love the 2004 adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South & not just because of Richard Armitage. However, I didn’t know there’d been an earlier adaptation in the 1970s starring Patrick Stewart and Rosalind Shanks until I saw it listed as a forthcoming DVD release & naturally bought copies for my library. Doesn’t he look brooding? I can’t wait to watch this, does anyone remember it?

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds – Alexander McCall Smith

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.

Sunshine on Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

Another instalment in Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series is always a treat.  Sunshine on Scotland Street begins with the wedding of Angus & Domenica which almost doesn’t happen as Angus has forgotten to buy a ring & discovers a hole in his kilt. Luckily Matthew is Angus’s best man & he saves the day. But even Matthew is taken aback when, at the crucial moment in the ceremony when the minister asks if anyone has any just cause why the couple should not be lawfully joined together, a cry is heard in the church.

Matthew, Elspeth & their triplets look set for stardom (on Danish television at least) when film maker Bo, a friend of their invaluable au pair Anna, wants to make a fly on the wall documentary of their life. The star of the doco, however, turns out to be Big Lou, whose supporting role goes viral on the internet.

Long suffering Bertie Pollock is thrilled when Angus asks him to look after his dog, Cyril, while he & Domenica go on their honeymoon. Bertie’s mother, Irene, is less pleased & poor Cyril is soon confused & miserable trying to stick to Irene’s unreasonable rules about suitable behaviour for dogs. Irene hasn’t changed at all, although she is taking up more & more of Bertie’s appointment time with his new psychoanalyst, Dr St Clair. Bertie’s father, Stuart, may finally be about to assert himself when he starts researching DNA testing websites after he finally starts wondering about baby Ulysses’s parentage.

Self-absorbed Bruce is taken aback to discover that his new neighbour looks exactly like him. Bruce finds himself on the back foot as Jonathan takes charge & convinces him to swap lives. Bruce feels compelled to agree, almost against his will, & starts wondering if Jonathan has some sinister motive in mind.

As always, Scotland Street is a comfortingly familiar place to visit. A few of the storylines are left unresolved. Pat Macgregor has lunch with her father & just as he’s about to tell her something momentous, the chapter ends & we never return to them. Bertie & Stuart have plans to go fishing but when Stuart’s car goes missing (not to Glasgow this time), their plans are scuppered. We never do find out if Bertie goes fishing. Angus & Domenica are on honeymoon in Jamaica (thanks to Domenica as Angus hadn’t planned anything) for the whole novel, only returning to give their first party as a married couple at the end of the book, complete with one of Angus’s poems. Sunshine on Scotland Street is a lovely way to spend a few hours. Nothing too bad ever happens to anyone, not even Bruce or Irene, & it’s fun to catch up with everyone else.

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth – Alexander McCall Smith

This is the latest Isabel Dalhousie novel from one of the world’s most prolific novelists. It’s only a couple of weeks since I read the latest 44 Scotland Street novel (I know these are serialised in The Scotsman so it’s been nearly a year in the writing) & there’s a new Professor Von Iglefeld novel out soon, Unusual Uses for Olive Oil. My favourite series are the Edinburgh series. I love the atmosphere of Edinburgh in these books. Isabel Dalhousie is a wealthy woman, a philosopher, living in Edinburgh with her fiancé, Jamie & their young son, Charlie. Isabel is the owner & editor of a journal, the Review of Applied Ethics, & her life as a philosopher influences every area of her life. Isabel is always aware of her good fortune. Her inherited wealth makes her slightly uncomfortable & she is very sensitive to the feelings of others.

In this latest novel, Isabel seems to have stopped questioning her good fortune in relation to Jamie & is just enjoying being in love. Jamie is younger than Isabel & was once the boyfriend of her niece, Cat. Although Jamie & Cat had broken up by the time he fell in love with Isabel, Cat has always resented their relationship & it hasn’t made their already spiky relationship any easier. The fact that Isabel goes down with mild food poisoning after eating mushrooms bought at Cat’s deli doesn’t help either – or the fact that Isabel can’t bring herself to lie to the food inspector when asked where she bought the mushrooms.

Isabel often finds herself involved in the problems of friends & acquaintances. She’s discreet & genuinely wants to help so she finds herself asked to investigate tricky problems. Jane Cooper is an Australian academic spending her sabbatical year in Edinburgh. She chose Edinburgh partly because she was born there & adopted as a baby. She’s about to turn 40 & wants to find out about her parents. Jane knows that her mother, Clara Scott, was a student who died in an accident about eight years after Jane’s birth, but she knows nothing about her father. Isabel agrees to help & starts making enquiries. Isabel soon discovers a possible candidate, Rory Cameron, who had been Clara’s boyfriend at the time. When she visits him, she discovers a disappointed man whose life had been one missed opportunity after another. He is thrilled to learn that he has a daughter & Isabel arranges for Jane & Rory to meet. But, it’s not as simple a story as Isabel first thought & when she begins to have doubts, she has to decide how much to tell Jane about what she discovers.

Along the way I always enjoy being part of Isabel’s privileged, well-ordered life. Her housekeeper, Grace, is a touchy but warm-hearted woman who goes to spiritualist meetings. When one of the spirits recommends investing in West of Scotland Turbines, Isabel is intrigued enough to ask advice. What is she to think when she invests & the shares go up? Is Grace right to have such faith in mediums & their messages? Then, there’s Isabel’s ongoing tussle with Professor Lettuce over control of the Review. Isabel’s coup in buying the journal is still resented by Lettuce who sends her a paper written by his nephew, Mark, & virtually dares her to reject it. When Isabel meets Mark to discuss the article, she learns a lot about Professor Lettuce – some of it surprising. The readers who commented on my post about the last Isabel novel, The Charming Quirks of Others, will be pleased to know that I looked for mentions of Charlie’s Macpherson tartan rompers & couldn’t find any. Of course, it could be that he’s too old for rompers now that he’s started playgroup, but the only reference to Macpherson tartan was the kilt Charlie wears on a very special occasion. I always look forward to a few hours spent in Isabel’s company.

Bertie Plays the Blues – Alexander McCall Smith

Bertie Plays the Blues is the latest instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series. I love McCall Smith’s Edinburgh novels. I spent a day in Edinburgh on my one & only (so far) trip to the UK in 1999 & I’ve always loved Scottish history & literature so spending even one day in Edinburgh was wonderful. I went to John Knox’s House, the Scott Memorial, the Portrait Gallery, stood outside Holyroodhouse (didn’t have time to go in & see Rizzio’s bloodstain on the floor, unfortunately). It was a lovely day. Reading the Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series takes me back there.

The Scotland Street books are serial novels first published in The Scotsman newspaper & then in book form. All of McCall Smith’s writing is funny, affectionate, gentle & sensible. I use sensible as a compliment! There are several passages in this latest book where the author gently satirizes the tendency of the authorities to put up signs warning citizens not to do various dangerous things. Obviously they don’t want to be sued but isn’t it a shame that we can no longer rely on the common sense of people not to do stupid things & then, when they hurt themselves doing those stupid things, rely on them taking the blame for their own stupidity rather than suing the nearest local authority? There’s so much affection for all the characters in this book that I found myself smiling as I read, often sighing with complete satisfaction.

McCall Smith has often said that he’s surprised & touched by the interest readers have in Bertie Pollock, the put-upon 6 year old son of ineffectual Stuart & horrendous over-achiever, Irene. In this instalment, Bertie, with the help of his computer-savvy friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, decide to put himself up for adoption on eBay. Bertie hopes a nice family in Glasgow (where he has several friends) will put in a bid for him. When eBay, understandably, take down their post, the boys decide to go to Glasgow & find an adoption agency themselves. Bertie has come to the end of his tolerance for the saxophone, Italian conversazione & visits to yet another psychotherapist. He wants to play rugby & go to Cub Scouts, although even there he has to put up with Tofu & Olive.

Art gallery owner Matthew & his lovely wife, Elspeth, are now the parents of triplets – Rognvald, Tobermory & Fergus. Matthew asks his former assistant (& sometime girlfriend), Pat Macgregor, to help out at the gallery so he can spend more time at home. All is going well, apart from the sleep deprivation, until Matthew removes the babies’ ID bracelets & they can’t tell them apart. Salvation comes in the form of an angel from Denmark, nanny Anna, who saves their sanity.

Angus Lordie’s engagement to Domenica Macdonald hits a snag when they try to decide where they’re going to live. Domenica wants to sell Angus’s flat but, as it’s also his studio, he’s resisting the idea. Then there’s the fate of their friend, Antonia, who suffered an attack of Stendhal syndrome on a trip to Italy & is still there, cared for by the nuns of a convent in Tuscany.

Big Lou, owner of the local coffee shop, is also looking for change in her life. Lou has never had much luck with men & when she decides to try Internet dating, her first date with a man with a curious job may lead to better things. Pat Macgregor accompanies Lou on this date for moral support & runs into her former boyfriend, Bruce Anderson, “surveyor, perfect narcissist, user of clove-scented hair gel, Lothario“. Pat is helpless to resist Bruce but, after he is unable to meet her for dinner because he slipped on his tube of clove-scented hair gel as he got out of the shower & ended up in Casualty with a broken leg, his flatmate, Neil, arrives to save the day.

McCall Smith’s gentle, humorous style, is so reassuring. Even the awful characters like Bruce & Irene are treated with affection. Bruce’s leg isn’t too badly broken & he doesn’t really mind missing his date with Pat because he’s so self-involved that he’s forgotten all about her already. Irene may be misguided but she loves Bertie & wants him to have the best opportunities. She just doesn’t listen to him. At the end of the book, there’s some hope that things are about to change for Bertie when Irene hears some home truths & buys him some jeans instead of the pink dungarees he’s always hated. Like the books of P G Wodehouse, nothing too bad ever happens in McCall Smith-land. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

A Conspiracy of Friends – Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third volume of adventures for the inhabitants of Corduroy Mansions, a block of flats in London’s Pimlico. I’m not as enamoured of the characters of Corduroy Mansions as I am of the Edinburgh equivalent, 44 Scotland Street. I’m interested & involved in all the Scotland Street crowd, even the annoying & unpleasant ones, but there are some Corduroy Mansions characters that leave me cold. I think it’s the atmosphere of Edinburgh that’s so attractive. McCall Smith really knows & loves Edinburgh. I know he lives there & I just think that level of knowledge & engagement with the city really comes across in both the Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series.

I do love William French, failed Wine Master & owner of Freddie de la Hay, a dog with enough personality to carry the whole book on his own! Freddie’s adventures in the previous book, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, when he was seconded by MI5, were wonderful. As a definite cat rather than dog person, the fact that I always love McCall Smith’s dogs is a testament to his excellent characterisations. William is kind, thoughtful but lonely, dismissed by his boorish son, Eddie (one of the characters I can’t stand) & pursued romantically by Marcia, the caterer of diplomatic events. When William & Freddie visit friends in the country for the weekend, William in is for more than one surprise. He is disconcerted by a friend’s confession & distraught when Freddie goes missing. I had to skim the chapters where Freddie was stuck head first down a rabbit warren but, he does escape from this near-death experience & he finds himself involved with a new family & a new career as a model.

Berthea Snark is continuing to research her warts-and-all biography of her dreadfully unpleasant son, Oedipus, “the only truly nasty Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament“. Oedipus is thrilled to receive a promotion but not so pleased to discover that his new job doesn’t entitle him to first-class air travel. His career may also be about to falter when his ex-lover, literary agent, Barbara Ragg, decides to spill the beans on a dodgy deal from his past. Then, on a trip to Geneva, Oedipus has a close encounter with the Hadron Collider that changes his life.

Barbara is also reassessing her life. She had promised to sell her flat to her business partner, Rupert Porter, & when she changes her mind, Rupert is so furious that he begins to undermine Barbara by pinching her clients. Most spectacularly he pinches the mysterious author of the Autobiography of a Yeti, the book that could be the bestseller of the decade. Barbara also finally finds out what happened to her fiancé, Hugh, on his life-changing trip to South America. Will the revelation change their relationship?

Berthea is also coping with her incredibly irritating & gormless brother, Terence Moongrove (another character I can’t stand) as he is talked into buying a vintage racing car & getting involved in racing, with himself as driver.

Then there’s Caroline, hopelessly in love with James, who may or may not be gay. Caroline’s mother has tried to convince her that James isn’t interested but she has to resort to a little motherly subterfuge to introduce a more suitable man into Caroline’s life. But is Ronald all he seems to be? I think he’s a little too good to be true. I have no evidence but a feeling & I’ll have to wait for the next instalment to find out.

A Conspiracy of Friends is full of the humour, wisdom & gentle satire that is McCall Smith’s trademark. First published as a serial novel in the Daily Telegraph, reading A Conspiracy of Friends  is a charming way to spend an afternoon.

The Charming Quirks of Others – Alexander McCall Smith

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.