The Sunday Philosophy Club : An Isabel Dalhousie Mystery

by Alexander McCall Smith

Hardcover, 2004

Call number




Pantheon (2004), 256 pages


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.

Media reviews

Her penchant for conducting moral arguments with herself is well-developed, but it can be less than riveting for the reader. Why does Isabel find herself drawn into the affairs of others? Is it because there is some moral imperative leading her to do so? Is it because man has an obligation to his fellow man? (Or is it because ladies who like to investigate crimes can be ladies who sell many, many books?) ...this book is a clear demonstration of Mr. McCall Smith's own philosophy: that there is wisdom in inviting readers into a world of kindness, gentility and creature comforts. Offer the literary equivalent of herbal tea and a cozy fire. They'll come back for more.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Lman
The Sunday Philosophy Club could, more aptly, be titled The Philosophical Musings of Isabel Dalhousie; like all Alexander McCall Smith books I have read, the main character drives the story with her sentiments and beliefs in life.

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.
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LibraryThing member BeckyJG
Isabel Dalhousie, the fortyish editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, lives comfortably in Edinburgh in a house filled with art. She's got a morning room that looks out onto the garden; there's even a fox in the garden. Her mornings are spent with coffee and crosswords, followed by philosophical musings and a few hours of work (she lives on an inheritance, and her editorial work is more a labor of love than a living).

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).
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LibraryThing member la_femme_jennifer
I have to admit I was disappointed with this character and couldn't get through the book. I'm a huge fan of the No. 1 Lady's Detective Agency books and was really looking forward to starting a new series of his. But I found Isabel Dalhousie to come across as arrogant and superior, and more than once had to put the book down for a couple of days because it annoyed me so much. I gave it two stars since the writing was good- it was just the characters that I couldn't get into. I'm sure there are others who would enjoy it, but I can't say I'm one of them.… (more)
LibraryThing member nickhoonaloon
I persevered with this one, hoping it would improve, but it never did.

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 !
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LibraryThing member verenka
I liked McCall Smith's other books, namely the Mma Ramotswe ones, but I couldn't for the life of me get into this one. I didn't warm to the main character who kept bringing up philosophical questions, pondered them for a second, sigh, and then say: this would be a great question to discuss during our Sunday Philosophy Club, but we never seem to find the time. She lives in a huge house with housekeeper and works part time as an editor, and still complains that people don't understand just how busy she is, when the story revolves around her solving cross word puzzles and drinking coffee while chatting to her opinionated housekeeper. I had little patience for this character and in turn the story (what did the reporter show up for?) and its loose ends. I'll let it travel on now.… (more)
LibraryThing member alanna1122
It is hard to give this a fair review since I am such a huge fan of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that McCall writes, but I found this very disappointing. I did not enjoy the philosophical tangents that speckle the novel. Most of them were deeply flawed even on the face of it. It is hard to believe that someone like Isabel Dalhousie would miss some such basic facets of arguments as she seemed to in her ramblings. I thought over all the whole thing was very lackluster. I am not sure if I will read any further into the series.… (more)
LibraryThing member amodini
I’m on page 156 (of 247) of the first book in the “Isabel Dalhousie” series, and Ms. Dalhousie has done little more than pontificate on various problems. The problem which requires her investigative powers is this : a young man has fallen from the balcony of a concert hall, and his fall is witnessed by Isabel. It doesn’t look like an accident to her, so she sets out to investigate. There are also other secondary problems, such as her niece Cat’s (the niece runs a restaurant) unsuitable boy-friend, Toby.

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.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
Delicious. I love Isabel Dalhousie and want to marry her. And I'm gay.
LibraryThing member whimsicalkitten
I'm a big fan of the author's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but was beginning to tire of them a little bit, so was glad to learn from a friend that McCall Smith had written other series. This is the second Isabel Dalhousie mystery that I've written, and it will definitely be the last. Although a philosopher by profession, Isabel is a meddling busy body by design, and an extremely annoying one at that. The author seems to think that making his heroine a philosopher gives him license to philosophize - but Isabel's endless conversations with herself and her few friends about ethics and morality are trite and full of cliche. Yes,Smith also takes every chance to use the characters in his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to discuss morality - but it's done with such charm and good sense and always seems to ring true. Isabel's maundering is simply annoying and obnoxious. Even more obnoxious is this presumably well educated woman continually browbeating her beloved niece Cat that she should rekindle her romance with an ex-boyfriend whom Isabel considers to be perfect for Cat while just ignoring Cat's insistence that she simply is not in love with Jamie and never will be. Another thing I dislike about this book, which I'm listening to on CD, is the grating, boring voice of the narrator. And this too is in stark contrast to the always fascinating reader of the No. 1 Ladies.....Agency series - whom I could listen to all day, every day.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bruce_McNair
Isabel Dalhousie is a busybody - constantly commenting on or meddling in other people's lives, but she has a heart of gold and wants to see the best in those around her. She has a degree in philosophy, is the editor of an academic journal on ethics, and is founder of the Sunday Philosophy Club. So she philosophises on all manner of things. When she sees a young man fall to his death, she can't get it out of her head to the point that she has to investigate. In my opinion, the story was slow to get going, and then built nicely to a climax, but finished with a disappointing and rather tame conclusion. For this reason, I gave the story 3 stars.

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.
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LibraryThing member bibliophile26
Isabel witnesses a man falling to his death at a concert hall. Was it suicide or was he pushed? A good mystery, but not as enjoyable as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
LibraryThing member pschristmas
I'm disappointed with this one. The main character is irritating and indecisive, a forty-something spinster desperately clinging to a university romance with a jerk of the highest order that played out to it's very predictable end several decades before while trying to convince her neice to go back to the milquetoast ex-boyfriend that she dumped months before because - shocker - she wasn't all that into him. No mystery, just a lot of whining. I won't buy another from this series.… (more)
LibraryThing member Djupstrom
Not nearly as good as the No. 1 Lady's Detective Agency, but a nice cozy mystery.
LibraryThing member Joycepa
Isabel Dalhousie is a 40-something wealthy woman who lives a comfortable life in Edinburgh, splitting her time between her part-time editing job with The Review of Applied Ethics and watching anxiously over her niece Cat who has the regrettable habit of getting involved with all the wrong type of men. In between, she indulges in a curiosity about the affairs of others that is almost always born of her sense of moral obligation (one of the perils of philosophy) that can lead her into amateur sleuthing. While attending a concert, she witnesses the fall from an upper gallery and resultant death of a young man; being the last person the young man saw before his death, Isabel feels morally bound (Isabel feels morally bound in a great many ways) to discover what she can about him. Soon she suspects that the death is not an accident.

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.
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LibraryThing member name99
I didn't much care for this.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheoClarke
Gentle, cerebral musing on morality and language wrapped around a very cosy mystery in middle class Edinburgh.
LibraryThing member riverwillow
The first in the Sunday Philosophy Club series featuring Isabel Dalhousie. I found this a fascinating and enjoyable read.
LibraryThing member SweetKitchen
As a fan of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, I found this book somewhat disappointing. The book is filled with quirky references to Edinburgh society and the main character, Isabel Dalhousie, is a 40 something woman of independent means who comes across as something of a fuddy duddy - I kept having to refer back to the passages which spoke of her age because she came across as an elderly woman. I will try to persevere with the rest of the series and hope that I can connect with something in the subsequent books.… (more)
LibraryThing member MrsLee
This is set in Scotland and I enjoyed it, though not to the extent of the African mysteries by this author. I thought the mystery would be better than the African ones, but it wasn't. The author cheated, withholding facts. Still, I would read more in this series.
LibraryThing member angharad_reads
Although I initially found the main character dry, this book grew on me. I might be willing to read another one, but I probably will never buy these.
LibraryThing member cla83
A fine story, a new miss Marple, living in Edinburgh who is nosy enough to indagate a strange story of homicide she assisted... Well written (I've read it in Italian...) the story keep you intersted till the end.
LibraryThing member SirRoger
Resist the temptation to compare it with the "Detective Agency" series. Each of his series has its own special color. In this, he blends relevant philosophical musings into the easy-going mystery.
LibraryThing member ruthm2010
I usually love Alexander McCall Smith but I was a little disappointed with this one. I found the story quite slow but plodded through till the end hoping it would improve. It just lacked the charm of McCall Smith's other novels.
LibraryThing member Blakelyn
I had a hard time with this book, as it was very stuffy and a bit TOO philosophical for my taste. I found myself skipping whole sections of philosophical fluff. I did not get attached to Isabel and found her character to be a bit boring.
LibraryThing member mbmackay
First of a series of books set in Scotland, with a middle aged, independently wealthy and interesting woman philosopher as the lead character. Many echoes of the Scotland Street series – the paintings, the crushed strawberry cords, the coffee shop, the houses, but it is a more coherent novel – benefits from not being written in daily instalments. A good, but not great, read. Read November 2008… (more)




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