Source of book: My wife owns this and introduced me to the author
In general, I am not a big fan of genre fiction. However, I do have a weakness for mysteries - particularly those in the British tradition. (I devoured Agatha Christie as a child - following in my mother’s footsteps.) Just this year, I read and reviewed the fourth installment in Alan Bradley’s Flavia series, and A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd. McCall Smith (that is his actual surname - the McCall is not a middle name) is one of those truly eccentric characters that seem to be too odd even for fiction.
He was born in Rhodesia (in an area that is now Zimbabwe), came to Scotland to study law, taught law for a few years while writing short stories and children’s books, returned to Africa to co-found the University of Botswana, returned to Scotland to teach - and become a recognized expert in - medical law, and finally found his present career as a novelist at nearly age 60.
He served for a time on the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee and the Human Genetics Commission for the United Kingdom. During the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote or co-wrote a whole bunch of scholarly books on bioethics and related issues.
Oh, and he plays bassoon and contrabassoo in The Really Terrible Orchestra, a group he helped found. For some reason, his photograph on the book shows him with a tuba. I suspect he may fill in on that if necessary…
Alexander McCall Smith with his more proper instrument, the contrabassoon
The Sunday Philosophy Club is the first in the series of the same name, featuring the middle aged Isabel Dalhousie, independently wealthy editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, which is pretty much what it sounds like. From what my wife has told me, Isabel’s maid, Grace; her niece, Cat; and Cat’s ex-boyfriend Jamie are all recurring characters in the series. Cat has terrible taste in men (having rejected Jamie, of course). Jamie is still in love with Cat, while Isabel is in love with Jamie, but doesn’t realize it.
The book is filled with references to art - particularly Scottish art, music, and philosophy. The good news is the McCall Smith has enough background in these areas to get the details right. (It’s best that those who never listen to classical music refrain from saying anything about Stockhausen, for example.) The author also gets bonus points for introducing me to a (relatively) obscure Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn. (Mostly unknown in the United States, as far as I can tell.) However, thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find clips and information.
I’m not enough of an art expert to be quite as picky as I am about music, but those details I did know, he got right. Philosophy is the big theme in this series, for obvious reasons. I enjoyed Isabel’s mental games as she analysed her options through the lens of philosophy. (And totally sympathized when all her careful ethical plans went out the window in the heat of the moment. Never done that before…)
The plot itself isn’t anything particularly striking, but it works. The characters are the interesting part, and their personalities drive the plot.
The best lines are the little observations in the mind of Isabel, as the story is told from her point of view (third person subjective, for those who care). Here is a good one regarding a particular article submitted to the journal:
It appeared to be written in English, but it was a variety of English which Isabel felt occurred only in certain corners of academia, where faux-weightiness was a virtue.
I also found her musing on the connection between manners - those deeper than the surface - and virtue to be interesting, although not universally true.
Good manners depended on paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs. Some people, the selfish, showed no inclination to do this, and it always showed. They were impatient with those whom they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged. The person with good manners, however, would always listen to such people and treat them with respect.
Definitely food for thought. When compassion becomes condescending, it is usually because of this failing.
On a related note, this line:
The world, it seemed, was based on lies and half-truths of one sort or another, and one of the tasks of morality was to help us negotiate our way round these.
I’ve mentioned in the past that we tend to want to impose narratives on history to give us a sense that everything makes sense, and can be fully explained and understood. Often these narratives contain a good deal of falsehood - and all contain incomplete truth. When we let those falsehoods and half truths become more important than our basic morality, when we let our necessarily imperfect understanding of the world lead us to cause harm to others, we have done wrong, even when we have a political or religious philosophy to back us up. (The theological justification for the institution of slavery comes to mind, but there are plenty of modern examples too. One could turn on C-SPAN and listen to either party and come up with a hundred examples.)
I wasn’t really expecting to get off into that in a review of a relatively light book, but I did find myself thinking in that direction. Isabel has to negotiate some tricky dilemmas - such as how much she should involve herself in what may have been a murder - and the author intentionally avoids the easy cases. In that respect, I see some commonalities with G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. (I don’t think anyone has bested Chesterton, though. His are still the best for their psychological penetration, in my opinion.)
Note on The Really Terrible Orchestra:
The Orchestra makes an appearance in this book, and it was a pleasant surprise to find that it actually had that name in real life too.
McCall Smith wanted to play in a group that was like a school orchestra, where everyone played for fun, not as a career, and marginal musicians were welcome. Since such an orchestra did not exist in Scotland, he founded one. The orchestra has a website, which is worth a visit. There are some fun clips and interviews and such. McCall Smith is featured prominently, of course. Always leverage celebrity power. The orchestra is truly terrible, and fulfills its goal marvelously.
One thing that was pretty clear to me after reading McCall Smith’s account of its founding was that Scotland is vastly different from the United States. We have a longstanding community orchestra tradition, and such groups exist in most reasonably large communities throughout the country. Some of these are in the spirit of the Really Terrible Orchestra, while others are of higher musical quality, but all have the goal of allowing those who do not wish to pursue music as a profession to make music anyway. In addition, our junior college system encourages older and “enrichment” students to participate in their music programs. I know a number of players who lack the chops to go the professional route who nonetheless have great enthusiasm who have found places to play.
Even the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, while it is a professional organization, employs primarily those who have other “day jobs,” as it is a very part-time gig.
So, I certainly appreciate the thought behind the Really Terrible Orchestra, and am thankful that the tradition of community music remains in my own country.
Note on Hamish MacCunn:
Here is his best known work. Pleasant enough, but not in the class of the very best, which is probably why it is primarily played in the United Kingdom.