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The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds


Alexander McCall Smith


It has long been my observation that the division of books into genres, while superficially useful, can be a rather misleading practice. Science fiction, for example, is actually a setting, not a genre. Thus we have sci-fi detective stories, sci-fi romances, sci-fi westerns, etc. Detective mysteries tend to lean towards the “novel” category, because they are intrinsically about people and their reasons for doing what they do.

Since the characterization is the part of the detective novel that has always appealed to me, I find the crime element (especially murder) to be extrinsic and often intrusive to my enjoyment of the story. Thus I have lately become entranced by two crime novelists who downplay the detective-solves-crime element of the story. Instead they concentrate on the important part, the interplay of humanity, which constitutes the major interest of our lives, both real and in entertainment.

Donna Leon is one such writer. Her Commissario Brunetti series is much more about Venice, Italian politics, and Brunetti and his relationships than it is about the crimes he solves.

It turns out that Alexander McCall Smith is another. He is renown for his “Number One Ladies Detective Agency,” series, which emphasizes the social interplay of the people of Botswana. Incidentally, it seems, actual mysteries get solved.

McCall Smith’s “Isabel Dalhousie” series pushes the envelope even further.

Isabel Dalhousie is an unlikely detective. She doesn’t intend to be one; she just helps people. Isabel is a philosopher, given to meandering away down those wonderful side streets of surmise that all thoughtful people wander into at times.

So when someone mentions the ubiquitous cucumber sandwich, her mind leaps to wondering if there might be a culture where cucumbers are spurned. Which leads her to consider England’s earlier dislike of apples (for bibilical reasons), and thence to the concern that potatoes were connected to laziness. Leading the reader to wonder whether that specific myth was created by the English to explain the actions of the poor in Ireland, which is exactly the kind of off-the-topic thought that this series inspires. But when we learn that one of the conflicts of the story is between the capitalist father and his socialist son, we begin to recognize the skill of a writer who can turn us loose in our own thoughts, but suddenly find us exactly where he wants us to be.

Lost in these flights of philosophical fancy, Isabel often finds herself smiling, chuckling, and even making comments that attract reactions of puzzlement or misunderstanding, which she is then forced to explain. Or not, if that is what she prefers. She is a philosopher, after all. Since the whole story takes place firmly in her point of view, the reader is often led to wonder what kind of endearing kook the other characters see her as. Their appreciation of her services is unquestioned, although her methods must seem obscure.

In “The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds” she is asked to help Duncan Munrowe, who is robbed of his prized possession, a Poussin oil of considerable value. It doesn’t take much digging around to realize that the main suspects are Duncan’s son and daughter, each of whom cheerfully accuses the other. Between solving all sorts of problems for acquaintances, friends, and even herself, Isabel applies no detective skills or techniques, but solves the problem of the missing painting through a philosophical trick worthy of Solomon.

And that's the whole plot. The reason I am giving you so little is that this is not really what the novel is about.

Enjoyment of this sort of book depends on the philosophy that the journey is more important than the goal. Isabel’s philosophical bent prepares us for the possibility that there will be no straightforward solutions to life’s problems, and yet we leave the novel satisfied that life is moving in its proper channels anyway.

An entertaining and satisfying read, with an uncommon appeal of its own.

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