As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to mysteries. I like my mysteries to be literary, character driven and cerebral. The majority of series I read don't have a lot of action, per se, and are generally penned by English and Irish authors.
So when I mercilessly tore the meticulously folded and taped Christmas wrapping from the brand-new, sharp-cornered hardcover copy of this book (is there anything better than a brand-new hardcover?) I felt no small bit of trepidation when I read the author's name.
The only thing I knew about McCall Smith as an author was that he also wrote the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. That wasn't a good thing because, I'm forced to admit, I'd assumed that entire series was grocery store beach reading aimed at the stay-at-home-mom and Oprah book club set. Yes, I admit with deep shame, I made this assumption without ever even have read any of them. I'm not proud of my cover-judging here, but I must be honest about it. If any book could teach me not to do that ever again, it was this one.
I am both pleased and relieved to report I was dreadfully, embarrassingly wrong about McCall Smith as an author and the book. The book was, I admit with some chagrin, also far smarter than I ever would of thought, sprinkled with references from avante garde composers to even modern philosophers.
The Sunday Philosophy Club was an absolutely delightful read. Its protagonist, Isabel Dalhousie, is a wealthy Scottish woman who edits an academic philosophy review. Dalhousie is independent and enjoys her life unapologetically, which is a refreshing change from most female protagonists, with the possible exception of Maisie Dobbs. Isabel enjoys doing her morning crossword puzzles, her relationship with her niece and mulling over the philosophical and ethical quandaries presented by everyday life. And, naturally, sticking her nose where it doesn't belong, which is how she becomes embroiled in a mystery.
In this case, Isabel attends a concert after which a young man falls to his death from the gods of the auditorium. As the man falls (is pushed?) head down towards the lower seats, Isabel ever so briefly catches a glimpse of his face. Isabel is haunted by the experience and though she almost successfully pushes it from her mind, she ultimately decides (through pretty sound philosophical reasoning) that she has a moral obligation to discover what really happened.
In addition to creating a refreshingly different protagonist, McCall's writing is clean and pleasant. His narrative style evokes the British cozy genre, or in this case, a Scottish cozy. The dialogue is very well done and flows naturally, adding to the depth of the characters instead of simply moving the plot along.
The mystery itself was intriguing, though not gripping. It acts more as a fulcrum for the characters and setting, but personally I was fine with that. Since it’s a character driven book in the best of ways, there isn’t a ton of action in this book and a lot of introspection.
Finally, there is a very high-brow, sharp wit peppered throughout the book that caused me to give an unexpected guffaw on more than one occasion. I enjoyed learning about Scotland and the idea of approaching life from a primarily philosophical perspective. Even the ending was philosophical, a feat for which I give a mental hat tip to McCall Smith.
The snob in me considers this a “guilty pleasure” read, but the I-just-love-to-read part of me (you know, the other 99.8 percent) can’t wait to get the next installment.
So if you’re looking for a what-happens-next read, this isn’t for you. But if you like people and are fascinated by the quietly eccentric among them, hurry to the bookstore or library now. You’re going to want to meet Isabel.