Scottish Bestselling Author Demonstrates How to Write Mystery Without Mayhem
Jun 1, 2009
A "mystery" of a somewhat unusual sort, this one demonstrates that you don't need murder and mayhem to keep the "detective" in the game. Isabel Dalhousie is a Scottish lady in her early forties who has inherited quite a bit of money and so needn't work for a living -- but she does anyway, in a marginal sort of way, as editor of a philosophy review with a smallish circulation amongst academics and some fellow travelers. She doesn't earn much from the gig but doesn't need to, while she is enabled by it to pursue her true passion: seeking answers to the questions of philosophy.
Moral philosophy, actually, her core interest: How to live the good life and what good ought we to pursue? But Ms. Dalhousie does not stand apart from the world she is endlessly contemplating, as it is with some philosophers. In fact, she maintains a wide circle of friends, and some family members, who keep her tightly tied to the game of life. And what else would a moral philosopher need but such ties since they are the grist of this particular philosophic mill?
As the book opens we learn that Isabel is a recent mother, albeit unwed, though neither she nor most in her society (and especially not within her immediate social milieu) think there's anything wrong with that. Her lover, a musician who is a good deal younger than she and the former lover of her niece, is greatly attached to his new son by Isabel and quite prepared to make an "honest woman" of the child's mother. Indeed, he loves Isabel, it would seem, though with a level of passion more befitting a thoughtful and sensitive artiste than with the more usual abandon of ardent youth. But Isabel is having none of it . . . for now anyway.
On the other hand her relationship with Jamie, the child's father, has brought its own complications since Jamie's former lover, Cat, Isabel's headstrong niece, resents her aunt's "acquisition" of her own cast-off lover and is made uncomfortable by the presence of the man's infant son in Isabel's spinster household. Into this complex of entanglements comes a mystery of sorts when Isabel, the ever thoughtful and self-doubting philosophical thinker, decides to purchase a newly discovered painting by a now deceased Scottish painter, Andrew MacInnes. The painting appears genuine to Isabel's gallery-owning friend except for some small oddities but Isabel is outbid at the auction by an unknown person in the back who departs hastily before she can identify him.
Resolved to make the best of her loss, our heroine gets on with her life and is soon embroiled in the political shenanigans of academia which her role as editor of the Review has thrust her into. Trying to sort out her own feelings and choices under the pressure of the professoriate, Isabel is abruptly surprised to learn certain new facts about the mysterious painting. Despite the urgings of her young lover to stay out of others' affairs, the philosophically curious Isabel cannot resist the bait of the mysterious painting and the surprising coincidences that keep coming up concerning it and off she plunges into a fray consisting, in equal measure, of certain mysterious persons and the tale of a long dead painter whose future was bright though his past was troubled when he suddenly disappeared off the Scottish coast in what might have been accident, suicide . . . or something worse.
The story is well told; the nuances of dialogue and, even more, the internal musings of the various characters are all fascinating and extraordinarily well done. The characters' interactions are also very tight and yet vividly real. But Isabel, herself, is just a bit tiresome -- someone who cannot ever seem to manage to act without extensive reflection, and then reflection on her reflections, and who is perpetually troubled by an overwhelming desire to choose rightly and, of course, well. She does not want to harm others and is always weighing the consequences of her choices well in advance of acting though she is not above a bit of human selfishness, herself, if she can justify it within a larger moral scheme and thereby assure herself that others will not be hurt unduly, or more than is right given their own choices and circumstances.
The real mystery here is less the resolution of the painter's strange disappearance or the peculiarities of his newly discovered painting but how Isabel will resolve her many social entanglements without causing more harm than good in the world in which she moves. Along the way, we're treated to a lovingly traced picture of the Scottish countryside and, especially, it's rugged western coast, and of Edinburgh. Ever present throughout is the apparent British obsession with one's place in, and obligation to, the larger society as manifested in an almost obsessive concern for one's carbon footprint, the rightness of having and using wealth when others have less, etc.
As a character and detective, Miss Dalhousie is an intriguingly pleasant companion but she's no Philip Marlow nor even a Miss Marple. On the other hand, we're long overdue for the philosopher qua detective and Alexander McCall Smith has answered that call with skill and verve. I remember reading somewhere that the well-known eccentric 20th century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was quite partial to the mystery genre when he wasn't contemplating more weighty matters. I think he'd have liked Smith's Dalhousie had he lived long enough to read about her.
Stuart W. MIrsky, author of The King of Vinland's Saga (an historical novel about the Norse in the New World circa 1050 AD)
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