Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Careful Use of Compliments -- Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is perhaps best known for his internationally bestselling series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but the former University of Edinburgh law professor and self-proclaimed philosophy buff is truly at home with his collection of novels about Isabel Dalhousie and her Sunday Philosophy Club, of which The Careful Use of Compliments is the latest installment. Just as with his other series, McCall Smith's "detectives" are not in hot pursuit of dangerous killers, but rather of perpetrators of crimes against common social decencies.

Starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club and moving through Friends, Lovers, Chocolate and The Right Attitude to Rain, McCall Smith has created an endearing protagonist: with a dash of Miss Marple's curiosity and sparkling wit paired with the pride, generosity, and high spirits of a Jane Austen heroine, Isabel is the perfect character to curl up with on a rainy Scottish afternoon, even if the closest you've ever been to Scotland is your plaid prep school kilt. Flawed though she might be -- having an affair with her niece's ex-boyfriend ten years her junior being a prime example -- her insistence on pursuing the "good" and the "true" in her philosophical journal, her beloved Edinburgh, and in her own life always leads her towards the right solution.

That is, until now. In The Careful Use of Compliments, McCall Smith ventures farther afield than usual with his plot and characterization. The book starts out as long-time readers of the series will expect: Isabel has a new baby in tow, the result of her ongoing relationship with the handsome young bassoonist, Jamie; consequently, she must navigate the world of parenthood while under the watchful gaze of Grace, her overzealous housekeeper, and Cat, her niece who cannot quite stomach the thought of her aunt being "in the family way" and united with an ex-lover of her own. Isabel is also, as usual, quickly ensconced in a mystery: this time, she finds herself investigating potential art fraud after she loses a chance to purchase a painting by her favorite Scottish artist at a local auction house. However, as we find out early in the novel, Isabel faces a startling piece of news that will be a shock to loyal fans: she is being ousted as the editor of her beloved Review of Applied Ethics. With an inheritance of millions, Isabel isn't concerned about losing the income: "in her case she did not even depend on the tiny salary she drew as an editor, an honorarium, really. What, she wondered, would it be like to lose the job that brought food to the family table, as happened to people all the time? That was a sobering thought" (39, Pantheon Books 2007 edition). But it is the principle of the thing -- it simply isn't right, the callous way she's being treated!

And it is here that the differences begin. Isabel would usually engage in lengthy philosophical monologues on the subject of the moral injustice she's noticed, invoking the likes of Kant and Hume and even Bertrand Russell as she puzzles through to that "right solution." But she doesn't. Leaving her beloved great thinkers to the side, Isabel gets mad -- and the novel rapidly turns into a book version of a soap opera. Hell hath no fury, as they say, like a woman scorned, and Isabel not only demonstrates this but induces it in those around her. The mystery, usually at the center of the novel's action, takes a back seat to the storyline about Isabel's lost post and the drama surrounding her baby and her niece. At the end, Isabel has gotten so far away from her typical pattern of behavior that there is simply no choice but for McCall Smith to create another book to resolve the drama and disruption in what looks like a cheap ploy to hook in his readers for another $21.95 (at least, for the hardcover version).

Consequently, The Careful Use of Compliments is a disappointment when read in conjunction with the rest of the series. Though British philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously asserted that, as long as the amounts of pleasure are the same, "the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry" (The Rationale of Reward 206), there is a degree of pleasure lost when the intellectual aspects of these books are absent. What makes McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series so delightful is how it allows for readers to be swept up in the plot and characters and to be challenged to engage on a higher plane of thought; without the latter, the books are no different than scores of other dime-a-dozen romance novels. McCall Smith would be well-advised to make more careful use of his particular specialties in the future.

Final Verdict: **

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