- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95
272 pages

The literary odyssey of Alexander McCall Smith now stretches from Botswana to Scotland with a stop in London, and this latest dissection of moral ethics by Isabel Dalhousie in Scotland may make the reader miss the less-pretentious philosophizing of Precious Ramotswe in Africa.

Dalhousie analyzes everything, from actions to words to delving into what might have been and what may yet be, and even gets into a discussion with Willy the postman over a potentially informative postcard. Oh, please. It is true that she is, as she puts it, “a moral philosopher by trade,” and she edits a magazine on moral ethics. Yet when she comments to a friend that Saturday night in Edinburgh is a time for “the burning of ears” and he reflects that even for her this was “unusually Delphic,” he puts his finger on a nagging little problem.

Taking on the task of assessing the qualifications, or lack of them, and gauging the possibility of a skeleton in a closet on a list of applicants for the job of headmaster at a local school is Dalhousie’s version of a murder mystery. The advice of her lover, Jamie, a man of common sense as well as charm, that she should make up her mind and just do it is not her style because she has to examine all topics to death.

Jamie, perhaps a decade younger than Dalhousie, is a musician with good looks and evidently a considerable amount of patience. Their baby, Charlie, is almost 2 years old, and Dalhousie’s reaction to Jamie’s suggestion that they should get married “very soon” evokes a volley of verbal meandering about waiting a few months while hinting that a Himalayan trek would be more to her taste than the sternly picturesque reaches of the Scottish Highlands.

Dalhousie is enraptured by Scotland, which is indeed a beautiful country. Yet to those who have actually lived there, her description of “soft Scottish rain” does not bring to mind the wind-driven icy downpour that frequently afflicts that land and doubtlessly contributes to its vivid greenery, as well as the perpetual dampness of most of its inhabitants.

Even little Charlie’s speech patterns are analyzed by his mother, who asserts that he speaks in a special tense that she calls “the past regretful.” This is her definition of what the toddler means when he says, “Ducks eaten all bread.” Charlie creates another worry when he is given a tiny marzipan pig as a treat at a cafe where he has taken to joyfully shouting “Pig! Pig!” while biting off its head. This amuses everyone except Dalhousie, who belabors the question of the future psychological consequences when Charlie realizes the pig also represents the bacon that he eats. At that point, you begin to feel sorry for Charlie facing years of maternal nitpicking that can be traced back to a his enjoyment of a marzipan pig.

And, of course, there is Dalhousie’s perpetual concern about her age difference with Jamie and whether she should be living with him, let alone marry him, not to mention her far-from-detached reaction when she suspects him of infidelity. That is one occasion on which she quite remarkably puts aside matters of the mind and marches forth tigress-style to do battle with the woman pursuing Jamie.

It turns out that her suspicions are unfounded, and that the woman is a fraud seeking sympathy for an invented illness. Yet what matters is the marked difference in the reaction of Dalhousie and Jamie. He is of an easygoing disposition, as a man living with a slow-burning oven would have to be. Yet it raises the possibility that if he ever were unfaithful, Dalhousie might have driven him to it with her endless and sometimes amusing capacity for taking apart words and ideas and associations.

The reader must make allowances for the fact that this is indeed what she does. As a moral ethicist, she understandably has constant assessments. Yet she also can be pedantic, and although she undoubtedly means well, she can be a bit of a bore. It might be predicted, perhaps with undue cynicism, that her marriage to Jamie may never take place, not because of lack of affection but because she will worry the relationship to death and spend the next 10 years reproaching herself. It also might be suspected that Mr. McCall Smith is offering a glimpse of his own philosophy of life in these books in which most of his major characters tend to be carefully charitable in their opinions and in the handing down of decisions.

The author is a professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and serves on various bioethics boards in the United Kingdom and abroad. His prodigious output consists of chiefly lighthearted novels spiced by his own subtle humor. The “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series may be the best example of Mr. McCall Smith’s skill in the art of poking fun and being kind at the same time. And the question may be whether Mr. McCall Smith is philosophically closer to his inimitable Detective Precious Ramotswe who has fought out her life in the poignant yet bleak background of Botswana, or to Isabel Dalhousie with her oddly prissy lifestyle that allows her to step back and admire her world while prodding at trivia.

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

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