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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Conspiracy of Friends’

- - Friday, June 29, 2012

A CONSPIRACY OF FRIENDS
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95, 272 pages

Despite the inimitable if occasionally pedantic charm of Alexander McCall Smith's writing, some readers may feel they get too little of Freddie de la Haye, the Pimlico terrier whose face adorns the jacket of this book.

The psychology of Freddie is more basic and certainly less convoluted than Mr. McCall Smith's cast of contemplative characters and the author acknowledges it. He compares canine friendship with human friendship. "A dog gave its friendship and devotion without any thought as to whether the person to whom these were given deserved them. ... How different from human friendship ... dished out sparingly and only with forethought as to what might be got from it. Freddie, he speculated, probably felt that people made noises constantly, and only in silence could he, as a dog, turn his attention to the smells wafting in from the outside ... layer upon layer of intriguing smells ... rabbit, cut grass, pheasant, rabbit, horse manure, blackberry, green Wellington boots, rabbit. ..."

Freddie's frightening adventure down a rabbit hole in many respects is more interesting than the perpetual philosophizing among the characters in the London flats called Corduroy Mansion. The fact that Freddie is a dog and doesn't indulge in examination of his psyche tends to make him more intriguing than lengthy questioning of whether Caroline should have hurt James' feelings and how she can be in love with Ronald within 24 hours even if he has rushed to her side after a road accident. And when the relationship between Barbara and Hugh apparently collapses after he has confessed he was once a gigolo and she tells him to get a grip about his guilt, it tests credibility to the point of boredom.

Nobody is suggesting, however, that the reader isn't fascinated by the marvelous character of the odious Oedipus Snark. How could anyone not be fascinated by a politician with a name like that? It's like having Frankenstein running for office, and the genetic changes that apparently occur in Oedipus as a result of a nuclear accident can be nothing but an improvement judging by his previous performance.

William French remains the cornerstone of Corduroy Mansion and of the book, as long as Freddie de la Haye is on hand to back him up. When he thinks he has lost Freddie, who has been rescued from the rabbit hole by a nice woman looking for a dog because she can't adopt a child, William sounds addled. And his inability to make up his mind about Marcia, his charming neighbor who is in love with him, makes him sound mushy.

Of course, Mr. McCall Smith's claim to literary fame lies in his enchanting series of books about Botswana starring the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency with Mma Precious Ramotswe as his "traditionally built" star. These works are so original and so clearly drawn from basic experience that they are never dull.

With all due respect for the author's prolific literary talent, that is more than can be said about his assortment of characters in the United Kingdom who move at a pace that would be glacial even in snaildom. It would be difficult to disagree with Mr. McCall Smith's genial wisdom. He is obviously a gentle and very gifted man. Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to transpose those qualities into the Corduroy Mansion gang. Except for Freddie de la Haye, of course.

There is a dog of personality drawn from an upbringing that included his learning how to strap himself into a car seat. The author has more sense than to suggest he understands what people say to him, even people to whom he is devoted. Freddie, thank goodness, is not cute. Freddie recognizes his name and he is obedient to a fault. All he wants is affection and enough decent food at regular intervals. He is all that a dog should be, and perhaps more intelligent than his owners deserve.

And it may be predicted that it is Freddie's picture on the cover, bright eyed, ears cocked, brimming with intelligence, that will sell this book.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.