Overthinking Alexander McCall Smith: The Most Introverted Mystery Series In Existence

sunday-philosophy.jpgI love Alexander McCall Smith, but the first time I read The Sunday Philosophy Club, I got a little pissed off. Then I read the next one, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, and nearly threw the book across the room.

I don’t even know why these are shelved in the mystery section of the library. They are BARELY mysteries. They have no climax. Nothing really comes of anything that is found out, and our sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie, is almost always wrong.

Meanwhile, three quarters of each book consists of unmysterious day to day life, including a lot of lunches out, dinner parties, cooking risotto, spotting foxes in the back yard, walking around Edinburgh, strolls around art galleries, letter writing, and occasionally a bit of romance.

A complete list of the series’ peculiarities would be very long, but here is a summary of some of the more bizarre quirks:

  1. The titles have nothing to do with the books or even the story. The title of the first book, The Sunday Philosophy Club, refers to a club which never actually convenes. Other titles, like The Right Attitude To Rain, obliquely refer to a single conversation within the book which does not actually relate to anything else in the plot.
  2. Isabel Dalhousie can barely take a single step without being sent into a long rambling thoughts. These rambles will can be triggered by things she sees, things people say, or absolutely nothing at all. They often delve into history, phisosophical thought, morality (a common theme in McCall Smith’s work), or relate to the poetry of W. H. Auden.
  3. Isabel Dalhousie is independently wealthy with a lot of time on her hands. It is not particularly easy to relate to her unless you are a highly educated middle aged female millionaire who spends most of her time lunching with people and thinking about ethics.

I could thoroughly understand anyone who despised these books with the passion of a thousand suns.

And yet…

I gave them another chance while home for Christmas (my mother owns a lot of McCall Smith and I am slowly stealing her collection and transferring it to my house in Vancouver). And then I came home and ransacked the library and I am slowly eating my way through the whole series, which is surprisingly prolific.

Strangely, almost inexplicably, I love them now.

Once I stopped expecting them to be normal, or even at all interesting, their charm sucked me in.

These books are the most introverted novels I have ever encountered. They are written about and for introverts, and there is something about them which I find deeply and blandly peaceful. They are like a hot cup of tea – often unsatisfying and yet somehow very comforting.

If you have not read these books, or you love them, or you love to hate them, let me walk you through the reasons why I both dislike and cherish this bizarre series (very few spoilers). 800px-Royal_Observatory_Edinburgh_on_Blackford_Hill-Oct2005.jpg

The Complete And Utter Lack of Stimulation

Her eye wandered to the pile of letters on her desk, put there by Grace the previous day. That was suggestive of the beginnings of something – an exchange of correspondence, perhaps. Somebody was about to enter the room and deal with the letters and then leave again, and then the stillness would return. – The Lost Art of Gratitude

You don’t have to worry about getting overstimulated with this series. I picked up the newest Robert Galbraith mystery last month and I was up until 2 in the morning turning pages. It’s hard to drop off to sleep when you are reading a gripping account of a serial killer, written by the woman who brought us Harry Potter.

I do not have that problem with The Sunday Philosophy Club. Even reading the books for the first time, I am perfectly capable of stopping in the middle of a chapter and going to sleep.

Just the titles of the books are enough to make one feel drowsy and at peace – The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, for example.

You can also be completely sure that there will be no attacks in the night, no violence, no no suspense. The closest thing you get to tension is the occasional barbed remark or awkward silence.

You can also feel very sure that there will be lots of quiet evenings, risottos shared between friends, polite lunches at Edinburgh restaurants, and contemplation of art and poetry.


Scottish Atmosphere

This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect. – The Sunday Philosophy Club

Just as the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books positively ooze Botswana culture, the Isabel Dalhousie books are full of Scotland. McCall Smith doesn’t spend much time on florid descriptions, but somehow you can feel Edinburgh all through these books. I have never been there, but every picture I have seen of Edinburgh comes to mind when I read it. I imagine folks talking in soft Edinburgh accents, and I see cloudy skies, and sweeping fells.

There’s something sort of chilly and cozy about it, and it makes me want to go to Scotland.


An Introvert Dreamworld In Excessive Detail

Cat was busy when Isabel arrived at the delicatessen. There were several customers in the shop, two busying themselves with the choice of a bottle of wine, pointing at labels and discussing the merits of Brunello over Chianti, while Cat was allowing another to sample a sliver of cheese from a large block of pecorino on a marble slab. She caught Isabel’s eye and smiled, mouthing a greeting. Isabel pointed to one of the tables at which Cat served her customers coffee; she would wait there until the customers had left. There were continental newspapers and magazines neatly stacked beside the table and she piked up a two day old copy of Corriere della Sera. She read Italian, as did Cat, and skipping the pages devoted to Italian politics – which she found impenetrable – she turned to the arts pages. There was a lengthy reevaluation of Calvino and a short article on the forthcoming season at La Scala. – The Sunday Philosophy Club

Some books are too wordy and overly detailed. George RR Martin comes to mind, here. I once read four pages describing each and every banner on a battlefield, only to turn the fifth page and discover that Martin had skipped the actual battle. I was not impressed.

The Sunday Philosophy Club series also goes into extreme detail. In The Lost Art of Gratitude, for example, an entire page is dedicated to Ms Dalhousie sitting down and paying her electric bill, which has nothing to do with the story whatsoever. The books are also peppered with cryptic crossword clues and meals being cooked and eaten.

She stirred the risotto, taking a small spoonful to test the seasoning. The liquid from the soaked porcini mushrooms imparted its flavour to the rice, and it was perfect. Soon she could put the dish in the lower oven and leave it there until Cat and Toby sat down with her at the table. In the meantime, there was a salad to prepare and a bottle of wine to open.  – The Sunday Philosophy Club

But I find this level of detail to be oddly soothing, because Isabel Dalhousie’s life is so very peaceful. I just sort of mentally follow her around while she lives her peaceful life doing peaceful things and it’s very calming.

I like to imagine getting up in the morning, having a cup of coffee, politely greeting my housekeeper while I do the crossword and talking to her about the news. Then I go to my office and spend the morning sitting by the window, thinking about ethics, reading and writing letters, and watching for foxes in the backyard. Then I decide to go down to my niece’s delicatessen for lunch, where I talk kindly to her nervous young employee and contemplate morality while he serves me a salad and coffee.

No, she would not go to Jenners that morning. She would walk into Brunstfield and buy something that smelled nice from Mellis’s cheese shop and then drink a cup of coffee in Cat’s delicatessen. Then, that evening, there was a lecture she could attend at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Professor Lance Butler of the University of Pau, a lecturer whom she had heard before and who was consistently entertaining, would speak on Beckett, as he always did. That was excitement enough for one day. And of course there were the crosswords. – The Sunday Philosophy Club

Isabel Dalhousie’s life is an introvert’s dream. She has hours and hours for quiet contemplation, a small circle of friends who come over for dinner occasionally, and very few worries. Any extrovert reading it would find it mind numbing, but if you are also an introvert like me, you might find that it is, in fact, introversion-porn.

photo credit to Osoom

Handy Tips For The Socially Awkward

Isabel observed an etiquette of the telephone: a call before eight in the morning was an emergency; between eight and nine it was an intrusion; thereafter calls could be made until ten in the evening, although anything after nine-thirty required an apology for the disturbance. After ten one was into emergency time again. – The Sunday Philosophy Club

Not only is Ms Dalhousie (she would not appreciate my calling her Isabel, since we have not been properly introduced and have not developed a mutually intimate acquaintance) an introvert, she often comes up with observations which are quite useful to her fellows.

For example, for awkward lunches she recommends a restaurant with a good view, and a seat by the window. That way you can look out of the window instead of making eye contact.

Her firm belief in propriety also helps her stand up for herself when someone tries to put her down, which is useful for the socially awkward. Ms Dalhousie teaches us that when someone is rude, it is okay to call them out and remind them of standard social conventions. And if you aren’t sure about those social conventions to begin with, she will certainly educate you in the matter – even if her etiquette is a little… how shall we say… traditional and mature.


An Education in Ethics

Isabel had firm views on moral proximity and the obligations it created. We cannot choose the situations in which we become involved in this life; we are caught up in them whether we like it or not. If one encounters the need for another, because of who one happens to be, or where one happens to find oneself, and one is in a position to help, then one should do so. It was as simple as that.

I have never had much interest in Philosophy, but Isabel Dalhousie has taught me how the careful consideration of philosophical viewpoints affect our actions. She constantly ponders not just ethics but the application of ethics to every day life.

Only Isabel Dalhousie could sit around contemplating the ethics of the electrical billing system, or whether travelling orchestras should use national courtesy when choosing their musical program, or how love and sex and other base emotions help us develop moral imagination.


So Much Over Thinking

She looked at the paper and held it up to the light. She rubbed it between her fingers, and thought of where it had come from, somewhere in those wide forests where… where the ports have names for the sea. The line of Auden came to her, and made her think of how typographical errors may lend a certain beauty to a line; Auden had written of sea-naming poets, in Iceland rather than Finland, but poets had been misread as ports. That was a creative misunderstanding, she considered, and it made the thought behind the line much better, much richer as some of our mistakes will do. – The Lost Art of Gratitude

If I ever start feeling bad about my tendency to overthink things, I could just read an Isabel Dalhousie book. The slightest thing will trigger a cascade of thoughts about ethics, morality, human nature, history, art, poetry, or all of the above.

Like many McCall Smith characters, she is prone to stopping to thoroughly consider another person’s off hand remark. Is that statement accurate? Does it apply to this situation? Could it be misused or taken out of context? Meanwhile the person who made the statement stands there and waits for her to respond, and she often needs to apologize for this.

“I can always tell when you’re thinking profound thoughts. You look dreamy.”

Isabel smiled. “I was thinking about Italy, and evil, and topics of that nature.”

Cat wiped her hands on a cloth. “I was thinking of cheese.” – The Sunday Philosophy Club

Some book reviews accuse her of “navel gazing” but I think this is unfair. “Navel gazing” usually means excessive self-contemplation – it suggests a narrow and self centred viewpoint. Isabel Dalhousie is the opposite of this. The smallest things make her contemplate a much wider viewpoint.

Would Immanuel Kant have known how to hold a baby? she asked herself. It was highly unlikely; babies were too irrational, too messy for him, although he would have acknowledged, of course, that each baby should be treated as an end in its own right and not a means to an end. – The Careful Use of Compliments

A single paragraph might take you through several works of literature, philosophy, and then back again.

Sometimes the depth of her over-thinking ranges into a full-on paradox.

Isabel wondered whether Jamie had read 1984; his reading was patchy but there were surprises. He had read Anna Karenina and Cry, the Beloved Country, but did not know who Madame Bovary was […] Like Madame Bovary, she had fallen for a younger man, although in her case she had no husband and there was no Flaubert to punish her. Women who fell desperately in love in defiance of convention were punished by their authors – Anna had been punished too; Isabel had smiled at the thought, and wondered whether she would be punished for loving Jamie. She had no author, though. Isabel was real. – The Careful Use of Compliments

Sometimes her musings are spoken aloud, which occasionally perplexes the other characters, particularly her extroverted niece. But Ms Dalhousie accepts these shortcomings of others, noting with amusement when a character thinks that Aristotle is a cheese or that she has entirely baffled someone with her non sequitur about art. She just takes that as an opportunity to think more deeply about their point of view.

“If I feel pity -which is an important emotion, isn’t it? – then this helps me to understand the suffering of others. So our emotions make us grow morally. We develop a moral imagination.”

“Perhaps,” Cat had said, but she had been looking away then, at a jar of pickled onions – this conversation had taken place in the delicatessen – and her attention had clearly wandered. Pickled onions had nothing to do with moral imagination, but were important in their own quiet, vinegary way, Isabel supposed. – The Sunday Philosophy Club

No one can pick apart and contemplate the minutiae of life the way Isabel Dalhousie does. You can argue whether that is good or bad, but it is certainly an introverted tendency, and one which will no doubt be better tolerated and even outright enjoyed by introverted readers.


Human Kindness

Do not act meanly, do not be unkind, because the time for setting things right may pass before your heart changes course. – The Careful Use of Compliments

If there is a united message in these overthinking, introverted, morality-obsessed books, it is to love one another and be kind. They are character driven stories, which focus on common human failings, and the ethical considerations of our day to day interpersonal interactions.

In bed that night, in the darkness, with the illuminated dial of her alarm clock glowing from the bedside table, she asked herself whether one could force oneself to like somebody, or whether one could merely create conditions for affection to come into existence and hope that it did, spontaneously. Open then our hearts – these words came into her mind, dredged from somewhere in her memory, from some unknown context. If one opened one’s heart, then friendship, and love, too, might alight and make their presence known. It was the act of opening that came first; that was the important thing, the first thing. But who was it who said, Open then our hearts? Where did that come from? – The Right Attitude To Rain

Ms Dalhousie is, like everyone, occasionally judgmental, cutting, or out-and-out wrong. But she works very hard not to be. She gives away large amounts of her money, and does so anonymously because she feels that anonymous giving is more moral. She apologizes to her niece when her niece is the one in the wrong, because she cares more about maintaining the relationship than winning the argument. She writes scathing letters in her head, and then takes up her pen and writes something very polite and restrained.

The books celebrate politeness, ethical behaviour, kindness, and most of all, love.

He kissed me, she thought. He made the move; I didn’t. The thought was an overwhelming one and invested the everyday world about her, the world of the square, of trees, of people walking by, with a curious glow, a chiaroscuro which made everything precious. It was the feeling, she imagined, that one had when one vouchsafed a vision. Everything is changed, becomes more blessed, making the humblest of surroundings a holy place.- The Right Attitude to Rain

This series does not belong in the mystery section. If there was a “Peaceful Books Celebrating Introversion and Kindness” section, they would belong there. This may never be my favourite series, but it has a place on my shelves.

Somehow, Isabel Dalhousie’s complex simplicity is strangely calming. It makes life both seem more peaceful and more thoughtful. I find that it soothes my anxieties and helps me feel mindful.

It’s very strange.

Still life with pears and wineglass by Samuel Peploe
Still life with pears and wineglass by Samuel John Peploe

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