Since tearing through Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and its four charming sequels, I have walked around framing my daily dilemmas in the calm, measured terms favored by the books’ sunny, self-assured Batswana protagonist, Precious Ramotswe. Smart and sensible, Precious lives by a seductive pre-Freudian code built on intuition, kindness, courtesy, and common sense. I must say, my life has never seemed more manageable.
And so, having just finished The Sunday Philosophy Club, the genial first installment in McCall Smith’s new series, I shall, like Precious – or Philosophy Club’s equally practical if more sophisticated protagonist, Isabel Dalhousie—make a cup of tea, find a comfortable place to sit, and carefully consider what I may candidly and judiciously say about this slight, wise, if somewhat twee novel.
Middle-aged and independently wealthy, Isabel lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she edits a philosophical journal and partakes in all the sedate, soothing rituals that encapsulate McCall Smith’s vision of the good life: the morning crossword puzzle, cozy chats with friends, a warm drink to start the day, a glass of wine to end it. Isabel also presides over a casual Sunday Philosophy Club made up of a few like-minded acquaintances, though the group almost never assembles. Perhaps because their philosophical inquiries are spontaneous and ongoing, stitched into everyday life and conversation.
As the book begins, Isabel reluctantly attends a concert by the Reykjavik Symphony because, after all, ”they could not be allowed to come all the way from Iceland and then perform to an empty hall.” She is talking to a friend when she sees a young man plunge to his death from an upper balcony. Was it an accident, a suicide, or a murder? The authorities seem content with the easy answer (accident), but Isabel feels a moral obligation to probe deeper. She begins surreptitiously investigating the dead man’s flatmates and colleagues, embroiling herself in a half-baked whodunit.
Plot has never been McCall Smith’s forte, and this lukewarm mystery does little more than stimulate a series of ethical questions for Isabel and her friends to wittily ponder: What is our duty to strangers? Do manners matter? Are sociopaths responsible for their misdeeds? There’s also a subplot involving Isabel’s niece, Cat, and her foppish, philandering fiancé, providing additional juicy material for debate.
Urbane and well-educated, Isabel is both less exotic and less enchanting than the radiant Precious Ramotswe, and contemporary Scotland lacks the balmy, travelogue allure of McCall Smith’s lovingly drawn Botswana. Yet Philosophy Club offers the same kind of sustenance supplied by his first, phenomenally popular series. Modern fiction is abundantly populated by the detached, despondent, and desperate. But opportunities to read about an intelligent, inquisitive woman trying to lead a meaningful, moral life crop up so infrequently that the mild-mannered, loosely constructed Philosophy Club glows like a rare jewel.