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An Isabel Dalhousie Novel (5)

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

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On Sale: September 23, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-37776-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis

ISABEL DALHOUSIE - Book 5

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 the fabulous new installment in the best-selling adventures of Isabel Dalhousie, Isabel is asked to help a doctor who has been disgraced by allegations of scientific fraud concerning a newly marketed drug. Our ever-curious moral philosopher finds her interest piqued. Would a doctor with a stellar reputation make such a simple but grave mistake? If not, what explains the tragic accident that resulted in the death of a patient? Clearly, an investigation is in order, especially since a man's reputation is in jeopardy. Could he be the victim of someone else's mistake? Or perhaps he has been willfully deceived by a pharmaceutical company with a great deal to gain.

Not every problem prompts an investigation (take, for example, her ongoing struggle with her housekeeper, Grace, over the care of Isabel's infant son, Charlie), but, as we've seen, whatever the case, whatever the solution, Isabel's combination of spirit, smarts, empathy, and unabashed nosiness guarantees a delightful adventure.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

What made Isabel Dalhousie think about chance? It was one of those curious coincidences—an inconsequential one—as when we turn the corner and find ourselves face-to-face with the person we’ve just been thinking about. Or when we answer the telephone and hear at the other end the voice of the friend we had been about to call. These things make us believe either in telepathy—for which there is as little hard evidence as there is, alas, for the existence of Santa Claus—or in pure chance, which we flatter ourselves into thinking plays a small role in our lives. Yet chance, Isabel thought, determines much of what happens to us, from the original birth lottery onwards. We like to think that we plan what happens to us, but it is chance, surely, that lies behind so many of the great events of our lives—the meeting with the person with whom we are destined to spend the rest of our days, the receiving of a piece of advice which influences our choice of career, the spotting of a particular house for sale; all of these may be down to pure chance, and yet they govern how our lives work out and how happy—or unhappy—we are going to be.

It happened when she was walking with Jamie across the Meadows, the large, tree-lined park that divides South Edinburgh from the Old Town. Jamie was her . . . What was he? Her lover—her younger lover—her boyfriend; the father of her child. She was reluctant to use the word partner because it has associations of impermanence and business arrangements. Jamie was most definitely not a business arrangement; he was her north, her south, to quote Auden, whom she had recently decided she would quote less frequently. But even in the making of that resolution, she had found a line from Auden that seemed to express it all, and had given up on that ambition. And why, she asked herself, should one not quote those who saw the world more clearly than one did oneself?

Her north, her south; well, now they were walking north, on one of those prolonged Scottish summer evenings when it never really gets dark, and when one might forget just how far from south one really is. The fine weather had brought people out onto the grass; a group of young men, bare-chested in the unaccustomed warmth, were playing a game of football, discarded tee-shirts serving as the goal markers; a man was throwing a stick for a tireless border collie to fetch; a young couple lay stretched out, the girl’s head resting on the stomach of a bearded youth who was looking away, at something in the sky that only he could see. The air was heavy, and although it would soon be eight o’clock, there was still a good deal of sunlight about—soft, slanting sunlight, with the quality that goes with light that has been about for the whole day and is now comfortable, used.

The coincidence was that Jamie should suddenly broach the subject of what it must be like to feel thoroughly ashamed of oneself. Later on she asked herself why he had suddenly decided to talk about that. Had he seen something on the Meadows to trigger such a line of thought? Strange things were no doubt done in parks by shameless people, but hardly in the early evening, in full view of passersby, on an evening such as this. Had he seen some shameless piece of exhibitionism? She had read recently of a Catholic priest who went jogging in the nude, and explained that he did so on the grounds that he sweated profusely when he took exercise. Indeed, for such a person it might be more convenient not to be clad, but this was not Sparta, where athletes disported naked in the palaestra; this was Scotland, where it was simply too cold to do as in Sparta, no matter how classically minded one might be.

Whatever it was that prompted Jamie, he suddenly remarked: “What would it be like not to be able to go out in case people recognised you? What if you had done something so . . . so appalling that you couldn’t face people?”

Isabel glanced at him. “You haven’t, have you?”

He smiled. “Not yet.”

She looked up at the skyline, at the conical towers of the old Infirmary, at the crouching lion of Arthur’s Seat in the distance, beyond a line of trees. “Some who have done dreadful things don’t feel it at all,” she said. “They have no sense of shame. And maybe that’s why they did it in the first place. They don’t care what others think of them.”

Jamie thought about this for a moment. “But there are plenty of others, aren’t there? People who have done something out of character. People who have a conscience and who yet suddenly have given in to passing temptation. Some dark urge. They must feel ashamed of themselves, don’t you think?”

Isabel agreed. “Yes, they must. And I feel so sorry for them.” It had always struck her as wrong that we should judge ourselves—or, more usually, others—by single acts, as if a single snapshot said anything about what a person had been like over the whole course of his life. It could say something, of course, but only if it was typical of how that person behaved; otherwise, no, all it said was that at that moment, in those particular circumstances, temptation won a local victory.

They walked on in silence. Then Isabel said, “And what about being made to feel ashamed of what you are? About being who you are.”

“But do people feel that?”

Isabel thought that they did. “Plenty of people feel ashamed of being poor,” she said. “They shouldn’t, but many do. Then some feel ashamed of being a different colour from those around them. Again, they shouldn’t. And others feel ashamed of not being beautiful, of having the wrong sort of chin. Of having the wrong number of chins. All of these things.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it is.” Jamie, she realised, could say that; the blessed do not care from what angle they are regarded, as Auden . . . She stopped herself, and thought instead of moral progress, of how much worse it had been only a few decades ago. Things had changed for the better: now people asserted their identities with pride; they would not be cowed into shame. Yet so many lives had been wasted, had been ruined, because of unnecessary shame.

She remembered a friend’s mother who had discovered, at the age of twelve, that she was illegitimate, that the father who had been said to have been killed in an accident was simply not there, a passing, regretted dalliance that had resulted in her birth. Today that meant very little, when vast cohorts of children sprang forth from maternity hospitals without fathers who had signed up to anything, but for that woman, Isabel had been told, the rest of her life, from twelve onwards, was to be spent in shame. And with that shame there came the fear that others would find out about her illegitimacy, would stumble upon her secret. Stolen lives, Isabel thought, lives from which the joy had been extracted; and yet we could not banish shame altogether—she herself had written that in one of her editorials in the Review of Applied Ethics, in a special issue on the emotions. Without shame, guilt became a toothless thing, a prosecutor with no penalties up his sleeve.

They were on their way to a dinner party, and had decided to walk rather than call a taxi, since the evening was so inviting. Their host lived in Ramsay Garden, a cluster of flats clinging to the edge of the Castle Rock like an impossible set constructed by some operatic visionary and then left for real people to move into. From the shared courtyard below, several cream-harled buildings, with tagged-on staircases and balconies, grew higgledy-piggledy skywards, their scale and style an odd mixture of Arts and Crafts and Scottish baronial. It was an expensive place to live, much sought-after for the views which the flats commanded over Princes Street and the Georgian New Town beyond.

She had told Jamie who their hosts were, but he had forgotten, and he asked her again as they climbed the winding stairway to the topmost flat. She found herself thinking: Like all men, he does not listen. Men switch off and let you talk, but all the time something else is going on in their minds.

“Fleurs-de-lis,” said Isabel, running her hand along the raised plaster motifs on the wall of the stairway. “Who are they? People I don’t know very well. And I think that I owe them, anyway. I was here for dinner three years ago, if I remember correctly. And I never invited them back. I meant to, but didn’t. You know how it is.”

She smiled at herself for using the excuse You know how it is. It was such a convenient, all-purpose excuse that one could tag it on to just about anything. And what did it say? That one was human, and that one should be forgiven on those grounds? Or that the sheer weight of circumstances sometimes made it difficult to live up to what one expected of oneself? It was such a flexible excuse, and one might use it for the trivial or the not so trivial. Napoleon, for instance, might say, Yes, I did invade Russia; I’m so sorry, but you know how it is.

Jamie ended her reverie. “They’ve forgiven you,” he said. “Or they weren’t counting.”

“Do you have to invite people back?” Isabel asked. “Is it wrong to accept an invitation if you know that you won’t reciprocate?”

Jamie ran his finger across the fleurs-de-lis. “But you haven’t told me who they are.”

“I was at school with her,” said Isabel. “She was very quiet. People laughed at her a bit—you know how children are. She had an unfortunate nickname.”

“Which was?”

Isabel shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jamie, I shouldn’t tell you.” That was how nicknames were perpetuated; how her friend, Sloppy Duncan, was still Sloppy Duncan thirty years after the name was first minted.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alexander McCall Smith

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

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.

Praise

Praise

“[Isabel Dalhousie's] adventures are both delightfully entertaining and provocative.”—The Seattle Times "Offers tantalizing glimpses of Edinburgh's complex character and a nice, long look into the beautiful mind of a thinking woman."—The New York Times Book Review“Virtue and truth triumph. . . . If you enjoy discussing the big truths and thinking about thinking, you will enjoy The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday.”—The Providence Journal “One of the most irresistible sleuths in modern fiction.”—Tucson Citizen“Delightful.... McCall Smith's talent for dialog is matched only by his gift for characterization.”—Chicago Tribune“Utterly charming.... Alexander McCall Smith often celebrates the best of humanity—its compassion, its intuition, its empathy.”—The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)“The exquisite writing and the kind charm of the characters are an oasis from 21st century life.”—The Birmingham Post“Enchanting.... Delicious mental comfort food.... The 'intimate' city of Edinburgh is an appealing character in its own right.”—Los Angeles Times“A witty, ruminative and wise examination of the things that comfort and sustain us.”—The Times-Picayune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“[Isabel Dalhousie's] adventures are both delightfully entertaining and provocative.”
The Seattle Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's conversation about The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, the latest novel in the bestselling Isabel Dalhousie series.

About the Guide

In this latest installment in the adventures of moral philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, the wife of a formerly prominent doctor asks for Isabel's help in rescuing her husband's damaged reputation. Marcus Moncrieff has been disgraced by allegations of fraud concerning his role in the trials of a newly marketed drug that may have caused the death of a patient. Isabel, despite her boyfriend Jamie's disapproval of her tendency to get involved in other people's troubles, finds herself wanting to help. Would a doctor with a stellar reputation make such a simple but grave mistake? If not, what explains the tragic accident that resulted in the death of a patient? Could he be the victim of someone else's mistake? Or perhaps he has been willfully deceived by a pharmaceutical company with a great deal to gain.

Isabel's private life has its share of perplexity as well. Since she and Jamie aren't married, she has difficulty making emotional claims upon him. Although he is an attentive father to their baby, Charlie, and stays at her house each evening, Isabel fears that he isn't securely attached, and is plagued by jealousy when an American composer takes an interest in him. And what she doesn't know is that her niece, Cat, still holds an attraction for Jamie.

Not every problem prompts an investigation (take, for example, her ongoing struggle with her housekeeper, Grace, over the care of Charlie), but everything requires the proper moral action, carefully and at times comically thought through. Whatever the situation, Isabel's combination of spirit, smarts, empathy, and unabashed nosiness guarantees a delightful adventure.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics.

Discussion Guides

1. At a somewhat dull dinner party, Isabel is engaged in a conversation about happiness with a doctor seated next to her. She argues, “most people are reasonably happy”; he argues that “most people are unhappy in one way or another” [p. 12]. With what evidence does he support his opinion? With whom do you agree, and why?

2. While Jamie is quite bored at the novel's opening dinner party [pp. 9–14], after a musical performance he is engaged in a conversation with the composer while Isabel feels ignored [pp. 36–39]. Why does Isabel feel herself to be at a disadvantage when the composer Nick Smart is present? What do these scenes indicate about Jamie and Isabel's status as a couple?

3. Why does Isabel treat the submission of an article by Christopher Dove so carefully? What feelings does she need to overcome in order to handle the situation? Does she do the right thing, or would it have been more satisfying if she had indulged her less noble instincts [pp. 24–29]?

4. Most of the novel is narrated from Isabel's point of view, but occasionally we are given access to the thoughts of Jamie [pp. 40, 45]. What would the story be like if Smith were to distribute access to the main characters' thoughts more equally? Would this have a positive or negative effect on your reading experience?

5. Jamie's relationship with Nick Smart gives rise to jealousy and anxiety in Isabel. She thinks, “if she was to keep Jamie, then she should not suffocate him; he had to have his freedom, had to have his own life…” [p. 45]. The fact of her being older is a source of worry. Does Isabel risk losing him because she doesn't speak often of her love for him? Does it seem likely that their relationship is temporary?

6. Isabel invites Eddie for dinner at her house, where they have a conversation about the worth of a painting she owns [p. 105]. Eddie is shocked by Isabel's obvious wealth, and asks her to lend him five hundred pounds. Why does Eddie lie to Isabel regarding the money? Do you agree with Isabel that a lie is harmful, and that “truth [is] built into the world” [p. 145]?

7. Interesting questions about the nature of sexual desire arise when Isabel, under hypnosis, has a vision of her ex-husband John Liamor and cries out to him [p. 112], and also when Jamie admits to himself that to hear Cat's name “hurt him and filled him with a disconcerting feeling of excitement” [p. 45]. Do these events suggest that the bond between Isabel and Jamie is not based primarily on sexual attraction?

8. Jamie reveals to Isabel that he's been meeting with Nick Smart because he's been working on composing a musical piece for Isabel, and Isabel realizes “she had misread everything-again” [p. 134]. What does Isabel need to learn about Jamie, and about herself?

9. Where, and in what kinds of situations, are the moments of comedy in the story? Look for example at Isabel's idea about a racehorse named Resentment Lingers, which causes her to smile while talking to Stella Moncrieff [p. 153]. How would you describe Isabel's sense of humor?

10. One of the things that is perhaps unusual in this series is the presence of “little snatches of poetry” which “provided their modicum of comfort, their islands of meaning that we all needed to keep the nothingness at bay; or at least Isabel felt that she needed them” [p. 157]. The poet most often quoted is W. H. Auden, whose biographer enters this story, giving a lecture that Isabel attends [pp. 169–70]. Does the presence of poetry enhance these novels, and if so, how?

11. How are the Isabel Dalhousie novels not typical of the mystery genre? How central to the reading experience is the mystery of how and why Marcus Moncrieff came to lose his reputation? Are other aspects of the plot equally interesting?

12. What does the revelation that Jamie is alienated from his family suggest (if anything) for his future with Charlie and Isabel [p. 217]?

13. Marcus Moncrieff's guilt or innocence is unclear until he himself tells Isabel the truth about his involvement in falsifying data [pp. 221–26]. What was his motivation? What can Isabel do to help him, given the circumstances? Why does she give him advice about his wife [p. 224]? Why is it interesting that she admits to Jamie, “I am a hopeless sleuth” [p. 226]?

14. Discuss the domestic “muddy Saturday” scene with which the story ends [pp. 237–40]. What does this scene suggest about the bonds between Isabel, Jamie and Charlie?

15. If you have read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, how does Isabel compare as a heroine to Precious Ramotswe? Which of the two characters do you prefer, and for what qualities? How are the two women alike?

Suggested Readings

W. H. Auden, Collected Poems; Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy; Martin Buber, I and Thou; Donald Campbell, Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History; Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life; Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness; David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals; William James, The Principles of Psychology; Edward Mendelson, Early Auden and Later Auden; Sonia Shah, The Body Hunters; Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.
Alexander McCall Smith

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Alexander McCall Smith - The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday

Photo © Michael Lionstar

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