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An Isabel Dalhousie Novel (2)

Written by Alexander McCall SmithAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alexander McCall Smith


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: September 20, 2005
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-375-42392-5
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Nothing captures the charm of Edinburgh like the bestselling Isabel Dalhousie series of novels featuring the insatiably curious philosopher and woman detective.  Whether investigating a case or a problem of philosophy, the indefatigable Isabel Dalhousie, one of fiction’s most richly developed amateur detectives, is always ready to pursue the answers to all of life’s questions, large and small.

In this delightful second installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling detective series, the irrepressibly curious Isabel Dalhousie gets caught up in a highly unusual affair of the heart.

When Isabel is asked to cover for vacationing Cat at her delicatessen, Isabel meets a man with a most interesting problem. He recently had a heart transplant and is suddenly haunted by memories of events that never happened to him.The situation piques her insatiable curiosity: Could the memories be connected with the donor’s demise? Naturally, Isabel’s friend Jamie thinks it is none of Isabel’s business. Meanwhile, Grace, Isabel’s housekeeper, has become infatuated with a man at her spiritualist meeting, and Cat brings home an Italian lothario. That makes for some particularly tricky problems–both practical and philosophical–for Isabel to unravel in this enormously engaging and highly unusual mystery.


Chapter one

The man in the brown Harris tweed overcoat—double-breasted with three small leather-covered buttons on the cuffs—made his way slowly along the street that led down the spine of Edinburgh. He was aware of the seagulls which had drifted in from the shore and which were swooping down onto the cobblestones, picking up fragments dropped by somebody who had been careless with a fish. Their mews were the loudest sound in the street at that moment, as there was little traffic and the city was unusually quiet. It was October, it was mid-morning, and there were few people about. A boy on the other side of the road, scruffy and tousle-haired, was leading a dog along with a makeshift leash—a length of string. The dog, a small Scottish terrier, seemed unwilling to follow the boy and glanced for a moment at the man as if imploring him to intervene to stop the tugging and the pulling. There must be a saint for such dogs, thought the man; a saint for such dogs in their small prisons.

The man reached the St. Mary’s Street crossroads. On the corner on his right was a pub, the World’s End, a place of resort for fiddlers and singers; on his left, Jeffrey Street curved round and dipped under the great arch of the North Bridge. Through the gap in the buildings, he could see the flags on top of the Balmoral Hotel: the white-on-blue cross of the Saltire, the Scottish flag, the familiar diagonal stripes of the Union Jack. There was a stiff breeze from the north, from Fife, which made the flags stand out from their poles with pride, like the flags on the prow of a ship ploughing into the wind. And that, he thought, was what Scotland was like: a small vessel pointed out to sea, a small vessel buffeted by the wind.

He crossed the street and continued down the hill. He walked past a fishmonger, with its gilt fish sign suspended over the street, and the entrance to a close, one of those small stone passages that ran off the street underneath the tenements. And then he was where he wanted to be, outside the Canongate Kirk, the high-gabled church set just a few paces off the High Street. At the top of the gable, stark against the light blue of the sky, the arms of the kirk, a stag’s antlers, gilded, against the background of a similarly golden cross.

He entered the gate and looked up. One might be in Holland, he thought, with that gable; but there were too many reminders of Scotland—the wind, the sky, the grey stone. And there was what he had come to see, the stone which he visited every year on this day, this day when the poet had died at the age of twenty-four. He walked across the grass towards the stone, its shape reflecting the gable of the kirk, its lettering still clear after two hundred years. Robert Burns himself had paid for this stone to be erected, in homage to his brother in the muse, and had written the lines of its inscription: This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way/To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.

He stood quite still. There were others who could be visited here. Adam Smith, whose days had been filled with thoughts of markets and economics and who had coined an entire science, had his stone here, more impressive than this, more ornate; but this was the one that made one weep.

He reached into a pocket of his overcoat and took out a small black notebook of the sort that used to advertise itself as waterproof. Opening it, he read the lines that he had written out himself, copied from a collection of Robert Garioch’s poems. He read aloud, but in a low voice, although there was nobody present save for him and the dead:

Canongait kirkyaird in the failing year

Is auld and grey, the wee roseirs are bare,

Five gulls leem white agin the dirty air.

Why are they here? There’s naething for them here

Why are we here oursels?

Yes, he thought. Why am I here myself? Because I admire this man, this Robert Fergusson, who wrote such beautiful words in the few years given him, and because at least somebody should remember and come here on this day each year. And this, he told himself, was the last time that he would be able to do this. This was his final visit. If their predictions were correct, and unless something turned up, which he thought was unlikely, this was the last of his pilgrimages.

He looked down at his notebook again. He continued to read out loud. The chiselled Scots words were taken up by the wind and carried away:

Strang, present dool

Ruggs at my hairt. Lichtlie this gin ye daur:

Here Robert Burns knelt and kissed the mool.

Strong, present sorrow

Tugs at my heart. Treat this lightly if you dare:

Here Robert Burns knelt and kissed the soil.

He took a step back. There was nobody there to observe the tears which had come to his eyes, but he wiped them away in embarrassment. Strang, present dool. Yes. And then he nodded towards the stone and turned round, and that was when the woman came running up the path. He saw her almost trip as the heel of a shoe caught in a crack between two paving stones, and he cried out. But she recovered herself and came on towards him, waving her hands.

“Ian. Ian.” She was breathless. And he knew immediately what news she had brought him, and he looked at her gravely. She said, “Yes.” And then she smiled, and leant forward to embrace him.

“When?” he asked, stuffing the notebook back into his pocket.

“Right away,” she said. “Now. Right now. They’ll take you down there straightaway.”

They began to walk back along the path, away from the stone. He had been warned not to run, and could not, as he would rapidly become breathless. But he could walk quite fast on the flat, and they were soon back at the gate to the kirk, where the black taxi was waiting, ready to take them.

“Whatever happens,” he said as they climbed into the taxi, “come back to this place for me. It’s the one thing I do every year. On this day.”

“You’ll be back next year,” she said, reaching out to take his hand.

On the other side of Edinburgh, in another season, Cat, an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, stood at Isabel Dalhousie’s front door, her finger poised over the bell. She gazed at the stonework. She noticed that in parts the discoloration was becoming more pronounced. Above the triangular gable of her aunt’s bedroom window, the stone was flaking slightly, and a patch had fallen off here and there, like a ripened scab, exposing fresh skin below. This slow decline had its own charms; a house, like anything else, should not be denied the dignity of natural ageing—within reason, of course.

For the most part, the house was in good order; a discreet and sympathetic house, in spite of its size. And it was known, too, for its hospitality. Everyone who called there—irrespective of their mission—would be courteously received and offered, if the time was appropriate, a glass of dry white wine in spring and summer and red in autumn and winter. They would then be listened to, again with courtesy, for Isabel believed in giv- ing moral attention to everyone. This made her profoundly egalitarian, though not in the non-discriminating sense of many contemporary egalitarians, who sometimes ignore the real moral differences between people (good and evil are not the same, Isabel would say). She felt uncomfortable with moral relativists and their penchant for non-judgementalism. But of course we must be judgemental, she said, when there is something to be judged.

Isabel had studied philosophy and had a part-time job as general editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. It was not a demanding job in terms of the time it required, and it was badly paid; in fact, at Isabel’s own suggestion, rising production costs had been partly offset by a cut in her own salary. Not that payment mattered; her share of the Louisiana and Gulf Land Company, left to her by her mother—her sainted American mother, as she called her—provided more than she could possibly need. Isabel was, in fact, wealthy, although that was a word that she did not like to use, especially of herself. She was indifferent to material wealth, although she was attentive to what she described, with characteristic modesty, as her minor projects of giving (which were actually very generous).

“And what are these projects?” Cat had once asked.

Isabel looked embarrassed. “Charitable ones, I suppose. Or eleemosynary if you prefer long words. Nice word that—eleemosynary . . . But I don’t normally talk about it.”

Cat frowned. There were things about her aunt that puzzled her. If one gave to charity, then why not mention it?

“One must be discreet,” Isabel continued. She was not one for circumlocution, but she believed that one should never refer to one’s own good works. A good work, once drawn at- tention to by its author, inevitably became an exercise in self-congratulation. That was what was wrong with the lists of names of donors in the opera programmes. Would they have given if their generosity was not going to be recorded in the programme? Isabel thought that in many cases they would not. Of course, if the only way one could raise money for the arts was through appealing to vanity, then it was probably worth doing. But her own name never appeared in such lists, a fact which had not gone unnoticed in Edinburgh.

“She’s mean,” whispered some. “She gives nothing away.”

They were wrong, of course, as the uncharitable so often are. In one year, Isabel, unrecorded by name in any programme and amongst numerous other donations, had given eight thousand pounds to Scottish Opera: three thousand towards a production of Hansel and Gretel, and five thousand to help secure a fine Italian tenor for a Cavalleria Rusticana performed in the ill-fitting costumes of nineteen-thirties Italy, complete with brown-shirted Fascisti in the chorus.

From the Hardcover edition.
Alexander McCall Smith

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the beloved, bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is also the author of numerous children’s books. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland.


Visit his website at www.alexandermccallsmith.com.



“A completely absorbing, profound, funny, sad, and moving book that will captivate [and] enthrall.”–Detroit Free Press“Witty, ruminative and wise.” –The Times-Picayune “Enchanting. . . . Delicious mental comfort food. . . . The ‘intimate’ city of Edinburgh is an appealing character in its own right.”–Los Angeles Times“Isabel Dalhousie . . . who made such a smart impression in . . . The Sunday Philosophy Club, returns in Friends, Lovers, Chocolate to further advance the cause of brainy, inquisitive older women who just can’t resist an intellectual puzzle.”–The New York Times Book Review
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book


“Enchanting. . . . Delicious mental and comfort food. . . . The ‘intimate’ city of Edinburgh is an appealing character in its own right.” —Los Angeles Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, the second episode in the adventures of Isabel Dalhousie.

About the Guide

Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and occasional sleuth, agrees to run her niece Cat’s delicatessen while Cat goes to a wedding in Italy. One day a customer named Ian tells her something strange about himself: since his heart transplant, he has had a recurring vision of the face of a person he doesn’t know, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of sadness and anxiety. Isabel can’t help getting involved, and in spite of the fact that the heart donation was anonymous, she discovers through a bit of amateur research that the young man whose heart Ian received died under mysterious circumstances. She vows not to get involved further, but on impulse she visits the mother and stepfather of a young deceased man, whose features match those Ian has seen in his vision. As Isabel is being drawn into the mystery surrounding Ian’s heart, her own heart is in some confusion: she finds herself in love with Cat’s ex-boyfriend Jamie, and also attracted to Tomasso, an attractive, wealthy Italian visiting Edinburgh to pursue Cat. Once deflected, he turns his attentions to Isabel and asks her to accompany him to Glencoe in his Bugatti.

When circumstances take some surprising turns, Isabel is enmeshed in two very different mysteries of the heart, which together make for a reading experience that is sometimes moving, often amusing, and always thoroughly enjoyable.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in southern Africa, and attended university in Edinburgh. He has been a professor of medical law in Botswana and in Edinburgh. He has also been an advisor to UNESCO and to the British government on bioethics. In addition to his internationally bestselling series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and the Isabel Dalhousie series, he has created the 44 Scotland Street series and the von Igelfeld series. He lives in Edinburgh, where he plays the bassoon in the RTO (Really Terrible Orchestra).

Discussion Guides

1. Isabel again notices Cat’s “inability to tell good men from bad” [p. 14] when Cat describes her friend Kirsty’s fiancé, Salvatore, who won’t disclose what he does for a living. Is Isabel correct about Cat’s weakness for inappropriate men? If she is, is it likely that Cat will ever resume her relationship with Jamie?

2. “You could never be me,” says Isabel to Cat. “And I could never be you. We never know enough about another person to be him or her. We think we do, but we can never be sure” [p. 12]. What are the implications of this statement on Isabel’s efforts to solve the mystery that Ian’s heart transplant presents?

3. Isabel is forty-two. Jamie tells Isabel that Louise, the married woman he is seeing, “is about your age, actually” [p. 48]. Cat tells Isabel that she’s not interested in Tomasso because of his age, which she says is “About your age. . . . Early forties” [p. 106]. Why is Isabel’s age mentioned so often? Is it because she thinks her chances for love are diminishing as time passes? Are her chances for love diminishing because of her age? Does Isabel have an exaggerated sense of her age?

4. How likely does a love affair between Jamie and Isabel seem? If Jamie is in his late twenties, is it likely that he would be romantically interested in Isabel, whom he calls “perhaps my closest friend” [p. 47]? Do you assume that this romance will be developed in upcoming volumes?

5. The question Isabel raises on page 54, of whether our possessions in some sense remain ours, is very much related to the feelings and visions Ian experiences after his heart transplant. Ian believes that he may be experiencing the memories of the man whose heart he received. What do you think of the idea that memory might exist at the cellular level [pp. 89–90, 92–93]? What is most interesting about the situation that Ian describes?

6. What is unusual about the way Isabel’s mind works? What, for instance, does she mean by saying, “There was a lot that one might say about chocolate, if one thought about it” [p. 67]? Does Isabel think like a writer of fiction, embroidering stories about people and their motivations? In what ways is fiction like moral philosophy?

7. Ian says he’s heard that Isabel has a “reputation for discreetly looking into things,” which she herself rephrases as “indecent curiosity. Nosiness, even” [p. 83]. Given Jamie’s and Cat’s disapproval of Isabel’s curiosity, is her need to get involved in such matters as Ian’s “indecent,” or the opposite?

8. What questions does the plot raise about the ethics of organ transplants and the rights of families and recipients to know about the person with whom they are engaged in this intimate form of charity? Why does Ian feel the need for contact with the family of his donor?

9. Isabel gets into awkward trouble when she assumes too readily that she has discovered the identity of Ian’s donor. How do you view her split-second decision to describe herself as a medium when she meets with the mother of Rory Macleod [pp. 125–31]? Does she make a serious moral error in this situation? Do you agree with her views on “moral proximity,” as she defines it on page 122?

10. Grace and Isabel, housekeeper and employer, have a conversation regarding Isabel’s romantic prospects. Grace tells Isabel, “You’re kind. Men like you. . . . They love talking to you,” and Isabel replies, “Men don’t like women who think too much. They want to do the thinking” [p. 170]. How true is this observation? Is Isabel too intelligent to be thought of as desirable by the majority of men?

11. Where, and in what kinds of situations, are the moments of comedy in the story? Does the comedy result from a farcical mishap, or a wry observation, or the way people speak to each other? How would you describe McCall Smith’s sense of humor?

12. Are Grace and Isabel friends, despite their differences in social class and education? What kind of a person is Grace, and what does she bring to Isabel’s life? Is it surprising that a pragmatist like Grace would believe in spiritualism?

13. Isabel isn’t perfect, and she sometimes makes social errors in a moment of impulse. When she recommends kindness and honesty to Tomasso in the restaurant, she is reacting to her own uncertainty about Tomasso and his motives [p. 178]. Is he being dishonest with her and with Cat? Why is Isabel attracted to Tomasso? What are the subtle things that happen in Isabel’s mind during their conversation in the restaurant [pp. 176–84]?

14. Ian and Isabel have a conversation about Scottish poets in which Ian reflects on William Dunbar’s phrase “taken out of the country.”* How does McCall Smith’s prose style, as well as Isabel’s musings, reflect the importance of "clear good language” [p. 197]?

*For complete text of Dunbar’s poem, “Lament for the Mahers,” see http://www.bartleby.com/101/21.html

15. Jamie tells Isabel that he won’t take the job with the London Symphony because of Cat, and Isabel angers him by saying, “She won’t come back to you, Jamie. You can’t spend your life hoping for something that is never going to happen” [p. 225]. Is she right or wrong to say this? Does it seem that Jamie needs to understand what Isabel is trying to tell him?

16. What traits make Isabel a likeable character? What does her character tell readers about the ways in which ethical thinking can enter into the circumstances of everyday life?

17. Why is Brother Fox in the novel [pp. 100, 216–17, 261]? What does he represent? What is the effect of the novel’s ending?

Suggested Readings

W. H. Auden, Collected Poems; John Berger, Ways of Seeing; James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides; Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac; A. S. Byatt, Possession; Donald Campbell, Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History; Agatha Christie, Ten Little Indians; Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go; William James, The Principles of Psychology; Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died; Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone; Norman Rush, Mating; Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One.
Alexander McCall Smith

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Alexander McCall Smith - Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Photo © Michael Lionstar

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