- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

Judging from the number of copies of Friends, Lovers, and Chocolate (Pantheon, $19.95, 261 pages) stocked by two small college town bookstores, prolific author Alexander McCall Smith has developed a large following for his novels — and deservedly so. It would be interesting to know what that audience is, for this is not a typical mystery novel.

This novel is the second in his new series, which began with “The Sunday Philosophy Club” in which he introduced his new “detective” — if “detective” is the word. She is Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland, a philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, as well as being a woman of independent means, the money inherited from her beloved American mother. Hers is a world of well-educated, cultured individuals whose world revolves around concerts, good restaurants, the opera and books.

Although there is in the novel an unsolved crime, the death of a young man in a hit and run accident, that accident is peripheral to the major mystery. The novel is much more a philosophical and psychological inquiry into the nature of consciousness, combined with Isabel’s continual musings over what is and what is not ethical behavior. These musings may not be profound, but they are intelligent and mentally stimulating.

One day in her niece’s upscale delicatessen, Isabel meets and grows fond of a psychologist, who has recently had a heart transplant from a young man whose identity he does not know. He is distrubed by recurring images of people and events he cannot recall. Although it goes against his scientific principles, he wonders if memories could not be carried by something other than brain cells and if these images are coming from the donor of the heart. Isabel is rational but open-minded and sets out to find some explanation, a quest that will begin by her trying to discover the identity of the anonymous donor.

Isabel is a character one yearns to have as one’s own friend, and she is the centerpiece of one of the most original, delightful and stimulating books I have read in some time. Mr. McCall Smith may have developed a whole new genre of the mystery novel — I know of no precedent.

Murder at the Washington Tribune (Ballantine, $24.95, 321 pages) is the 21st mystery novel by Margaret Truman, the much-loved daughter of a much-loved American president, all of them set in Washington and all involving murders at such places as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Pentagon and Embassy Row. As she says in her author’s note, for the first time she as decided to fabricate the location of a murder, a fictitional newspaper. Her ostensible reason is that The Washington Post and The Washington Times (as well as their lawyers) might take offense.

Other than a fabricated newspaper, Mrs. Truman’s locations are real and she has a remarkable up-to-date knowledge of this city’s neighborhoods, restaurants and parks. Her central character is Joe Wilcox, a reporter nearing retirement from the Metro section of the Tribune, but he has never had the really big story and yearns for that and the honor that comes with such. He gets his chance when a young female reporter is murdered one night just off the newsroom of the Tribune. If there is a theme to this book, it is journalist ethics. Although Wilcox rails against what he calls the “tabloid ethics” of younger reporters, he himself will break some serious ethical rules in an attempt to solve the murder and write the story.

Mrs. Truman can get carried away with her metaphors and analogies at times, as when she says that for a reporter “being on Page One was like hitting a game-winning home run, grabbing the brass ring, and winning the Medal of Honor, an Oscar and the America’s Cup all at once.” That said, however, Mrs. Truman tells a good story and knows how to plot a mystery novel. (I do, however, know of no reporter who would exchange the Medal of Honor for a front page story.)

Catherine Arid’s Hole in One (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $22.95, 202 pages) is another in a long series of novels featuring Chief Inspector CD Sloan, a detective in an English town. In the first chapter, a beginning lady golfer at a country club finds herself in a deep bunker behind the sixth hole. After displacing much sand, and on something like her 10th attempt to get out of the bunker, her club will hit the head of a murdered young man buried there.

“Hole in One” is a throwback to a kind of English mystery novel perhaps most popular in the 1930s. Much of it is dialogue, and that dialogue, especially from CD Sloan, is filled with allusions, double entendres and puns. Some if this is quite witty, but it can also become monotonous and often irrelevant ot the plot, especially as we read the conversations of the four lady golfers in the first chapter.

Although forensics exist in this in this town’s police department, Sloan will solve the murder and ensuing mysteries, the old-fashioned way, through logical deduction, for instance, a mind-boggling examination of what golfer played what golfer in a series of club tournaments — and which caddies they used. Arrests are made, but, unless he extracts a confession, I am not sure the scenario he develops, however plausible, would convince a jury.

The author tells us in an opening note that the plot is based on an Old Testament story found in Second Kings, V, 1-27. The novel is not a very close parallel to the ancient story (there is no leprosy here unless it is greed), but Sloan’s memory of the story from Sunday school will lead to his beginning to understand the events. If the reader wishes to match withs with SC Sloan, I suggest he or she read the Old Testament chapter before the novel.

Murder and revenge exist in Rhys Bowen’s Evan Blessed (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95, 246 pages), the ninth novel with Constable Evan Evans, but if ever a modern mystery novel could be considered “cozy,” they are these, and I always look forward to one an the cheer I know will come at the end. Evan is a the lone law officer in a small Welsh village high on Mount Snowden, a village where Welsh and English are spoken interchangeably. (A small glossary is provided.) Its charming inhabitants are known usually by their occupations, such as Mike the Butcher. The ministers of the two chapels and their wives continue to battle with competing Bible verses and sayings. In this novel, the Rev. Davies’ sign reads, “Faith without works is dead. St. James.” The Rev. Jones’ message is from St. Paul: “You will be saved by your faith.” The villains in these books are of course always tourists, outsiders buying summer cottages or the residents of neighboring larger towns.

The many followers of this series will be glad to know that the down-to-earth hero Evan Evans is finally going to marry the town’s lone school teacher, the Cambridge-educated Englishwoman Bronwen. However, the town is shocked because, at Bronwen’s wealthy parents’ insistence, they are to be married in a nearby town’s Church of Wales. The villagers complain that the wedding will “all be very Papist,” but they all attend, the ladies even bringing food for the reception out of fear the caterer will serve “Italian food.”

Lloyd Shaw is a retired English professor.

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