Philosophical Mysteries
A new mystery from an author who gives his characters "generosity of spirit."

Sunday, September 20, 2009


By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon. 262 pp. $23.95

Early in the sixth novel in Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series, the title character -- an Edinburgh philosopher and well-meaning intervener in the affairs of others -- makes a comment that suggests the kind of entertainment "The Lost Art of Gratitude" is going to be. "Somebody had told her," Isabel muses, "that the essence of a good still life was the feeling it inspired that something was just on the point of happening. What was about to happen here?"

Not much, it turns out. This literary still life will go on for 56 more pages before a plot suggests itself. But plot has never been what draws readers to McCall Smith, either in this series or in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. The books' appeal has to do, as the author once suggested, with their portrayal of characters "in whom generosity of spirit is very strong."

As befits the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel is concerned with the intersection of philosophical principles and daily life. One such principle is "moral proximity," the idea that when people you know are in need, you have no choice but to try to help them. Enter Minty Auchterlonie, a self-centered investment banker of Isabel's acquaintance who asks for help with an ex-lover who she says is harassing her. Isabel can't say no, despite her inclination to view all investment bankers as usurers -- a judgment she characteristically rejects as "uncharitable" soon after voicing it.

Complications ensue, along with something that might be loosely described as a mystery. Yet "The Lost Art of Gratitude" isn't really about Minty and her morally problematic intrigues. It's about Isabel. A 40-year-old woman who has survived a debilitating first marriage, she struggles to let herself be happy with Jamie, the much younger father of her 18-month-old son. "I do not deserve somebody so beautiful," she thinks at one point, because "none of us deserves good fortune . . . it simply comes." But the self-examining philosopher promptly corrects herself: "Do I really believe that? I do not, and never have." Quite often, in fact, "we get what we deserve."

McCall Smith's readers get what they deserve as well. He has created a world where humor is gentle, suffering is acknowledged but not foregrounded, and efforts to do good are usually rewarded. It's a wonderful place to visit, even if we don't get to live there.

-- Bob Thompson, a former staff writer for The Washington Post

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