THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95, 304 pages
Freddie de la Hay is not the kind of dog who sneaks around, which would seem to disqualify him as a working member of the British intelligence service known as MI6. All Freddie wants from life is a kind owner, a comfortable bed and meaty dog biscuits. He recalls a gloomy time when he belonged to someone who made him eat carrots and use a seat belt in a car and forbade him to chase cats or squirrels. "William French was to be valued for rescuing him from bondage, from durance vile," Alexander McCall Smith notes in his latest book.
In return, Freddie offers unconditional devotion as well as good manners. But his life becomes difficult when his beloved owner succumbs to the charms of a pretty spy and lends Freddie out in the service of his country. A senior spy with the memorable name of Sebastian Duck buckles around Freddie's neck a collar that makes him a canine transmitter of information about gun-sight optics in a conspiracy involving some unpleasant Russian spies.
Even worse, his transmitter identifies which side he is on, and Freddie's intelligence career is over almost before it has begun. "Shoot him" is the immediate Russian reaction to the unmasking of poor Freddie.
It's difficult to see how the superficially charming Mr. French can justify such callous behavior, especially to Freddie. Even his nasty son Eddie yells at him to go get back the faithful dog he has given away. In this latest chronicle of Corduroy Mansions and its wacky occupants, Mr. McCall Smith wanders through his usual world of eccentric humans in which the dog seems to be the only one with any sense.
The names of Mr McCall Smith's characters tell you much of what you need to know of their personalities. There is Basil Wickramsinghe, a High Anglican accountant, and Gillian Witherspoon, who thinks of him as "The Blessed Basil" and always sits next to him at his parties. Gillian gets into the kind of argument that involves a picture of the underpants of the martyred St. Sebastian and the possibility that they are homoerotic.
Then there are Caroline and James, a devoted couple whose devotion is diluted by James' disinclination for physical involvement with either boys or girls, as he calls them. He breaks down and cries in Caroline's arms as he confesses that all he wants is to go on being friends and inventing new recipes for risotto and scones for her. Showing commendable common sense, Caroline wipes away James' tears and wastes no more romantic thoughts on him. And there is Barbara Ragg, a literary agent who has decided to represent "Autobiography of a Yeti," as dictated by a person who claims to be the Abominable Snowman himself.
Barbara is in love with Hugh MacPherson, a Scot who is passionate about Scotland and tells her he "misses it every day." Barbara, who is a Londoner, is dubious about leaving a city she has come to think of as "an old slipper that had been home to countless feet and still welcomed and warmed the feet that came to it fresh." Barbara loves London, but it turns out she loves Hugh more, especially after she swims with him in a waterfall on the Highland island of Tiree.
All these things are going on among the denizens of the "elegantly crumbling" Corduroy Mansions, but nobody except Eddie seems to care about Freddie de la Hay. Eddie is the rude and surly son of the cultured William French, and it was because of the arrival of the dog that Eddie left the house in a rage, which was precisely what William wanted him to do. Yet it is Eddie, paying a casual visit home, who explodes in fury when he discovers that Freddie has been lent to M16 and already has been written off as a casualty of the espionage world.
"You hear this, Old Man," Eddie yells. "You go and rescue Freddie de la Hay. You should be ashamed of yourself. You're not fit to own a dog!" Eddie's tirade spurs his father into action because William feels miserable about Freddie. "He had let the trusting dog down. He had handed him over without any enquiry as to provisions for his welfare. His head had simply been turned by two female agents of M16 and he had behaved with complete disregard to Freddie's feelings."
It is Tilly, one of the pretty female agents, who takes William to where Freddie is imprisoned in an attic in a suburban house. William climbs on Tilly's back to reach a window, then smashes the glass with a stone so that Freddie can leap into his owner's arms. William holds a party to celebrate Freddie's rescue. Even Eddie congratulates his father on getting Freddie back but warns him, "Don't do it again. Take up bowling or something."
And there is Freddie de la Hay lying in a corner, one eye open, watching the human comedy playing out in the room. For Freddie, William reflects, "there were no great existential questions because he knew what he had to do, which was to do William's bidding and make him happy." That was Freddie's worldview.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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