By Eugenia Zukerman
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; C04
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon. 368 pp. $24.95
The prolific author of four popular series, including "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," Alexander McCall Smith seems to be exploring new genres. He recently published a stand-alone novel, "La's Orchestra Saves the World," about a World War II romance with a musical background. Now, with "Corduroy Mansions," set in contemporary London, he cooks up a delicious story that seems part Restoration comedy and part Victorian novel, tossed with a dash of mystery and a dollop of satire.
"Corduroy Mansions" is like the cloth of its title -- comfortable, easy, homey. Illustrated whimsically by Iain McIntosh, these short chapters or vignettes evoke the serial magazine writing of another era. Character names, too, seem to be a homage to British writers of the past -- Swift, Fielding, Dickens -- who were fond of descriptive appellations such as Roger Thwackum, the nasty tutor in "Tom Jones." In "Corduroy Mansions," an "oleaginous MP" is named Oedipus Snark; his putative girlfriend is Barbara Ragg; there's a writer named Errol Greatorex; and a neighbor, Miss Oiseau, who has "a thin, reedy voice."
The story begins with William Edward French, a widower, 51, self-described as "average height, very slightly overweight . . . no distinguishing features. Not dangerous, but approach with caution." A wine dealer, William lives in Corduroy Mansions with Eddie, the adult slacker son he dearly wishes to offload. Marcia, a caterer, has an unrequited taste for William and therefore also wishes to remove Eddie from the scene. She has a key to William's flat and tries to entice him with her cooking. Sometimes he comes home to discover "a plate of only-the-tiniest-bit-soggy chicken vol-au-vents, or cocktail sausages impaled on little sticks, like pupae in a butterfly collection."
Filled with charming eccentrics, "Corduroy Mansions" is like a small 18th-century village with big 21st-century angst and insecurities. Thrown into this mix are four young women who share a flat on the floor below William, along with Basil Wickramsinghe, an accountant, and assorted non-residents. There's also a vegetarian dog, Freddie de la Hay, a former "sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport," who is brought in by William to scare off his canine-phobic son. Berthea Snark, Oedipus's psychoanalyst mother, who hates her son ("I've been visited by dreams in which I have done something terrible to him"), features importantly, as does her brother, the ditzy Terence Moongrove.
The discovery of a possibly stolen Poussin painting provides a McGuffin, as does a manuscript written by a yeti (a.k.a. the abominable snowman). McCall Smith, a master of weaving the many strands of his complex stories together, does so here with supreme virtuosity. He satirizes the manners and mores of his characters and their society but, as always, remains deeply affectionate toward his flawed cast. And so, Dear Reader, will you.
Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival and founder of ClassicalGenie.com.