By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95 353 pages
A nasty politician with the name of Oedipus Stark and a dog called Freddie de la Haye who likes
to wear a seat belt in a car and prefers to dine on Belgian shoes - you don't need any more to tell you that you have once again entered the whimsical world of Alexander McCall Smith.
The creator of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana and other assorted series about the eccentrics of Scotland has moved his prodigious imaginative processes to London and concocted "Corduroy Mansions," a charming if crumbling mansion block full of Mr. McCall's kind of people. The book is infused with the author's pawky humor in which he pokes fun without stabbing his characters in the back.
A character who exudes McCallsmithism is William French Failed, a middle-aged wine merchant who knows a lot about the grape but failed a master of wines course, and wanted some letters after his name instead of Esq.
William's geniality and patient nature lead people to think he is a pushover and they are wrong. He is genuinely generous and kind, but he knows how and where to draw a line, as Eddie finds out. What William wants is to live in peace and quiet in his comfortable flat without the dismal presence of an ill-mannered twentysomething who treats his father as a doddering old fool. Eddie belongs to that segment of the young who know nothing and take pride in their ignorance. So William has to do something about Eddie and his solution is Freddie de la Haye.
Freddie is a Pimlico terrier who has been brought up as a "twenty-first century dog, a world citizen" according to his owner, the "celebrated columnist" Manfred James who has decided to share his dog. He explains to the startled William that the raising of Freddie had two dimensions, one behavioral and the other dietary. This means that Freddie is a vegetarian and also likes cats.
Manfred then introduces Freddie to William as "your new career."
And Freddie looks at William with "dark, mournful eyes, eyes so liquid that they might conceal the presence of tears, might break the very heart."
And Freddie is indeed different. He demonstrates it as he jumps onto the taxicab seat beside William and begins to whine, then nuzzles the seat belt and presses his snout behind it. The taxi driver solves the problem. "Wants you to belt him in, mate," he tells William, who realizes that Freddie had been trained to belt up in the back of a car. When William tells Eddie that he has acquired a pet, his son bursts into mocking laughter and delivers a newspaper headline comment: "Elderly wine merchant acquires hamster for company."
The discovery that the pet is a dog horrifies Eddie who is terrified of the canine species, a fact of which his father is well aware. The crafty William points out, "You said you were going to move out ... so the fact that you don't like dogs shouldn't be a problem, should it?" William has assessed and resolved the Eddie problem and moves on to more pleasant thoughts, like the possibility of Marcia, a caterer who is his neighbor in the flats, moving into his son's now vacant room.
A cautious man, he isn't about to jump into a relationship with Marcia, but he is willing to consider it. That's when they begin cleaning the room and find an antique painting hidden in the wardrobe. That proves to reveal more of Eddie de la Haye's culinary preferences than William wants to know, although he does forgive the dog for chewing his new Belgian shoes.
Drifting through the chronicles of Mr. McCall Smith are characters like Oedipus Snark, a particularly odious member of Parliament and his put-upon girlfriend, Barbara, who is so desperate to be married she is even prepared to consider Snark. Even more intriguing is Snark's mother, Berthea, who is writing his unauthorized biography and maintaining a friendship with her husband's mistress, Jane Sharplie, an Oxford philosophy don. Berthea's reaction to the infidelity of husband Hubert is crisp, "Frankly, Jane, you're welcome to him."
Of course, there is no question of a divorce, and Berthea has no objection to her husband's moving to Oxford, since, as she notes, she doesn't have all that much space in town. Jane observes appreciatively that Berthea is being "very mature about this." Berthea agrees, perhaps more tartly than Jane expects. "But that's why he's leaving me. Because I'm mature."
Mr. McCall Smith specializes in subplots that punctuate the book like polka dots, relying on his considerable literary skills to link them into a merry pattern of human events. He is especially adept at handling the conversations between a pretty girl called Caroline and her friend James, a young man who is not quite sure whether he is gay and wants to do some experimenting. Caroline explains she is fond of him but is inclined to go on being friends. James says a little sadly that if he goes on being nothing but friends with women," They will want me as a friend that's all. How will I ever know what I want if all I'm going to get is friendship?"
Then they go back to her apartment to make biscuits, and James says mournfully, "There you are. Would any woman ever invite a straight man to cook biscuits with her?"
The book is full of engaging characters and Freddie de la Haye fits right in. At one time, Freddie had been a sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport because of his good nose. Freddie had fallen victim to the affirmative-action program when it was discovered that all the sniffer dogs at the airport were male, raising the point of whether animals should be treated fairly.
When Freddie lost his airport job, it meant "a shrinking of his universe" and returning to live with the columnist whose tastes he did not share. "But Freddie was an obedient dog and wanted only to please. So when he was instructed to treat cats with respect ... he did as he was bade." Life with William was less demanding, even when Freddie did something terrible like eating a potentially valuable antique painting instead of steak. William forgives Freddie de la Haye because he recognizes his "look of dejection" as apology enough.
It may be predicted that we have not read the last of William and Freddie de la Haye, who are welcome additions to Mr. McCall Smith's voluminous and ever-growing closet of characters.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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