The Sunday Philosophy Club
by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown, 2004)
Reviewed by Nimish Dubey
Take a dollop of Dorothy Sayers, add a spoonful of Agatha Christie, tip in a dash of Reginald Hill for taste, season with a bit of philosophical reflection, stir thoroughly, and if you are lucky, the result might be something like The Sunday Philosophy Club.
Best known for his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Smith moves into new territory with The Sunday Philosophy Club, with new characters and a new setting (Edinburgh). The heroine this time around is not the formidable Precious Ramotswe, but a 40-something spinster, Isabel Dalhousie. A well-known philosopher and the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel gets the shock of her life when she sees a young man fall from one of the upper stalls after a concert at Usher Hall. Everyone—the spectators, the police, even the man’s friends—think that it is an accident (he leaned too far and lost his balance), but Isabel is not too sure. And decides to look into matters herself.
But she has other things on her plate as well. She is far from delighted with her niece Cat’s latest boyfriend, Toby, who she considers a poor substitute for the man Cat dumped in his favour, Jamie. The reasons for her dislike begin from his strawberry corduroy trousers and end with his apparent lack of manners. In fact, the more Isabel sees him, the less she understands why he was chosen over the deposed Jamie.
You could not like Toby as a person (unless you yourself were the wrong sort of person); you could only like him for his physique. Toby was a sex object in crushed-strawberry corduroys, that’s all he was. And Jamie, by contrast, was… well, Jamie was beautiful.
Isabel’s housekeeper Grace (a lady of extremely strong likes and dislikes, especially the latter) shares her opinion, branding Toby “unfaithful” with a mere glance. But Cat seems to think the world of him and that puzzle and pains Isabel to the point that she even starts fantasising about him getting swept off in an avalanche: “Avalanches. The roar. The sudden confusion of crushed strawberry. The tidal wave of snow, and then the preternatural quiet.”
The Sunday Philosophy Club is all about how Isabel juggles her roles of amateur investigator (and she is amateur, believe me), matchmaker (trying to get Jamie and Cat together), matchbreaker (getting Toby and Cat apart) and editor. The roles often merge with each other—Jamie decides to help her out with her investigations and she ends up following Toby in the hope of uncovering something about his shady present. There is subtle humour and lots of philosophical reflection, especially when Isabel reflects on the changing values of the current generation. It is all knitted together so immaculately by the author that after a while you end up forgetting about the plot and read on just for the pleasure of seeing what the characters get up to. And they get up to quite a lot. Isabel wonders if she herself is falling for Jamie. Toby has a few secrets. And Grace lectures Jamie on fashion as a means to get back Cat:
“Your trousers,” whispered Grace. “They’re very dull. You’ve got a great body… sorry to be so direct, you know, I wouldn’t normally talk like this to a man. And your face is tremendous. But you have to… you have to be a bit more sexy. That girl is, well, she’s interested in that sort of thing.”
Jamie stared at her. Nobody had spoken to him like that before. She undoubtedly meant it well, but what exactly was wrong with his trousers? He looked down at his legs, at his trousers, and then he looked at Grace.
She was shaking her head; not in disapproval, but in sorrow, as at missed opportunities, potential unfulfilled.
All of which is good because if the book has an Achilles heel, it is the investigation. Isabel is an absolute riot as amateur sleuth, but some of her conclusions seem a tad too farfetched for comfort. The denouement is also a bit disappointing, especially in the light of all that precedes it. But these false steps cannot detract from the sheer brilliance of the narration. Humour, mystery and philosophy rarely make the best bedfellows, but Smith tucks them in nicely, without ever appearing to be trivial or patronizing. There are quotes aplenty here, so keep a notebook and pencil handy
Authors who make you read a book just for the sheer pleasure of reading are rare, so there’s good reason for WWF to hang the “endangered species” tag on Smith. Meanwhile, I will do what I can to ensure he flourishes—go out and buy all his other books.
(Incidentally, if you are wondering what the title of the book refers to—it is a group of people who try to meet every Sunday and discuss, you guessed it, philosophy. And they don’t meet a single time in the book, although Isabel often thinks of them!)