A novel by Anthony Burgess
Vibrant, creative, incomparable Edinburgh, Scotland! Beloved of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, David Hume, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and scores of other great men and women who studied, lived or visited there. Bonnie Prince Charlie held brief but doomed court in its Holyrood Palace.
Edinburgh was the heart of one of the three great periods of Western Civilization: the Scottish Enlightenment. What, then, is it now: according to author Alexander McCall Smith? Or at least, what is Edinburgh to the colorless, gutless characters who limp through his seventh Isabel Dalhousie novel, THE CHARMING QUIRKS OF OTHERS?
To professional moral philosopher and editor Isabel Dalhousie, the former capital of Scotland is a place to buy a portrait of her fourth great-grandmother. Edinburgh is also where she and her much younger lover and musician Jamie produced baby Charlie. It is where the parents may (probably may not) have a private wedding in three or four weeks in a side chapel of a Scottish Episcopal church. Edinburgh is where an adultress weakly schemes to keep her boys school headmaster lover in his job after he has announced that he is moving to Singapore. Edinburgh is where a mentally ill young woman comes on to Jamie and tries to take him away from no longer philosophical, but blubbering Isabel Dalhousie.
Isabel thinks vague thoughts to herself. She converses with anyone who will listen to her, butterflying from one loosely associated idea to another. She sprinkles her remarks with allusions to Bert Brecht ("Chow down first, moralize later"). She edits a quarterly moral philosophy journal, sorting out academic catfights among dons with big egos.
The novel needs a plot of sorts. Hence, Isabel agrees (because that is what she always does: agree to help anyone who asks for her assistance) -- without knowing what she is agreeing to in this instance -- help an adultress frame one of three innocent candidates for her lover's soon to be vacant headmastership.
Isabel does not work hard at her sleuthing for faults in the three men. But one amazing coincidence upon another makes her task almost effortless. After all Edinburgh society is small. The onetime great city is like a wee neighborhood. Indeed, all "Scotland was a village, and a very small one at that" (Ch. 5). And Scots apparently cannot be reined in from gossiping.
In the end, relying on her famed intuition rather than grunt work digging for credible evidence, Isabel discovers who the disgruntled soul was that wrote an anonymous poison pen letter, in green ink, that launched her investigation. Half American Southerner through her mother, philosopher Dalhousie wishes happiness and all the best to every lying, ill, depressed, striving, ambitious, worthless character that she encountered in her un-time-consuming sleuthing.
For Edinburgh atmospherics give me Sir Walter Scott and THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN any day. Scotland never was and is not today "a very small village at that." Go there and decide for yourself.
Too many trees have already been cut down to make the paper in the pages of THE CHARMING QUIRKS OF OTHERS. Do not, repeat not, waste your time on this book's bloodless vaporizings.
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