Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher by training, and an amateur sleuth by choice. When a young man falls from a balcony to his death, Isabel does not believe it was an accident. Plunging deep into the shady business community of Edinburgh, she is determined to root out the truth.
Isabel Dalhousie, the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, spends her time in Edinburgh constantly reflecting on the minutia of her life through her own ethical and honourable compass. When at a concert one night, she witnesses a young man fall to his death, which sets off a moral obligation on her part to investigate such a dreadful event.
Independently wealthy, with a university education in philosophy, a failed marriage and now living alone, Isabel has numerous friends: foremost being her niece Cat, her housekeeper Grace, and Jamie, a former boyfriend of Cat’s, who Isabel is particularly fond of; all of whom enhance and complicate Isabel’s attitudes to the predicaments in which she inevitably places herself. For, regardless of her philosophical propensity, Isabel is as human and vulnerable, and subject to the same idiosyncrasies, as anyone else. Thus she meddles in affairs not strictly her business, forms strong opinions, but is an astute and intelligent woman who is quick to realise her own inadequacies and faults, whilst shrewdly assessing others - including crushed-strawberry corduroy trousers!
I have always considered Alexander McCall Smith’s books contain more of a sociological bent than belonging to a crime genre. This book, to my mind, is a leisurely ramble through the society of today, using Isabel to allow sharp, perceptive reflections and contemplations of, perhaps, the author’s notions of life nowadays. If, like me, you lament the loss of politeness and the lack of moral fibre seeping into our lives, you will, undoubtedly also enjoy and relate to this book. If you find this loss incomprehensible, along with an incongruousness for the inability of a Sunday Philosophy Club to ever meet; then this book is not for you.
Another lovely gentle read; to soothe and solace – a balm for the soul.
As The Sunday Philosophy Club opens, Isabel is at the symphony, having gone to see the Reykjavik Symphony perform. As she mingles afterward she is horrified to see a young man plummet past her from the nosebleed seats--the gods, as they are poetically known--to his death below. An accident, or something more sinister? Try as Isabel might, she can't get it out of her mind, and is driven to pursue the mystery.
The Sunday Philosophy Club is slow-moving, sweet, introspective, and gently humorous. As much time is spent inside Isabel's head as she turns over ethical issues--to tell a friend of a cheating spouse or not, one's responsibility to tell the truth to a stranger, the place of the white lie in civil society, and the like--as is spent chasing down the answer to the question of the death that starts it all off. The description is rich (I was ready to pack my bags and books and move to Edinburgh), as are the characterizations. Best of all is Isabel herself, whose inner life is deep and thoughtful, but who also lusts, much against her better judgment, for the much younger Jamie (who, in addition to being much younger, is also the ex-boyfriend of Isabel's niece and closest friend, Cat).
I am intrigued as to why not. The first chapter is remarkably strong, containing two of those little insights which are what I look for in writers, both taking place after a young man falls to his death in a theatre. One is a bit obvious , but still effective and true to life - "The woman looked at Isabel with that sudden human intimacy that the witnessing of tragedy permitted", the other appears as the aforementioned Isabel talks to a Policeman - "It was a reproach, but not a severe one, as he saw that she was upset. For she was shaking now. He was familiar with that. Something happened and people began to shake. It was the reminder that frightened them ; the reminder of just how close to the edge we are in life, always, at every moment."
It seems to me you need a certain attitude of mind to pick up on these points. How an accomplished writer who clearly does have that attitude of mind can`t make a half-way decent book out of it is beyond me.
No doubt this tale of a philosopher with an interest in applied ethics failing to apply ethics to real-life despite her best, most earnest endeavours, is intended as a gentle satire. Rightly or wrongly, it creates the impression that the writer is as solipsistic as his characters.
What makes it worse is, I really wanted to like it !
This book suffers when compared to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – it has very little of the charm and wit of the latter. Isabel seems nice and fair enough, but she thinks too much and does too little. Here’s an example of stuff she contemplates :
“She checked herself. That was the third time that she had imagined him in a disaster, and she should stop. It was childish, uncharitable, and wrong. We have a duty to control our thoughts, she said to herself. We are responsible for our mental states, as she well knew from her reading in moral philosophy. The unbidden thought may arrive, and that was a matter of moral indifference, but we should not dwell on the harmful fantasy, because it was bad for our character, and besides, one might just translate fantasy into reality. It was a question of duty to self, in Kantian terms, and whatever she though about Toby, he did not deserve an avalanche or to be reduced to biscuits. Nobody could be said to deserve that, not even the truly wicked, or a member of the other Nemesis-tempting class, the totally egotistical.”
It’s not that I disagree with Isabel (or Smith’s ) moral philosophy, but it would be nice to have the story keep pace with the philosophy. I had brought the first 2 books in the series, but now I think I’ll only read one.
In my opinion, McCall Smith's writing is full of indiscriminate changes in point of view and extraneous thoughts from his characters. I see that sometimes his humour derives from these extraneous thoughts, but often they just seem like padding, as though he is a stream of consciousness writer who does little editing of his work to weed out the junk. I appreciate that he builds his characters through this extraneous matter, and perhaps that makes his writing more appealing to many readers.
Isabel Dalhousie is a “detective” in the tradition of Miss Marple, although she is not quite so enthusiastic about it. Edinburgh is portrayed as a very small town, charming, perhaps, but a bit stuffy. The characters are ok. Isabel, the most developed, agonizes constantly over the morality of every single action. You want to shake her and yell, “Just live, damn it! You’re going to make mistakes no matter how you intellectualize!”
Good, but nothing special and not a keeper. Nothing that interests me in reading others of the series.
The background color consists of discussions of the architecture, music and art of Scotland, matters of very little interest to me, while the philosophizing was a little too much "everyday common sense congratulating itself for being so much more sensible than ivory tower nonsense", the same sort of blather one hears from people who ramble on about how awful modern art is.