There might not be a better time to become acquainted with the world of Isabel Dalhousie, the amateur sleuth who is the main character in Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club series.
The series follows Isabel’s life in Edinburgh, a privileged life which is lived at a gentle pace, in which personal and social problems are tackled with thoughtfulness and consideration of moral and ethical issues. Wow. Sitting up straighter?
The world generated by the books is firmly rooted in the here and now, set in a meticulously and lovingly observed Edinburgh and its environs and populated by real people as well as fictional creations. At the same time, it is distinctly timeless. The descriptions of characters, their thoughts and preoccupations, daily activities, dilemmas, relationships could be set in any period before the digital age, although the series begins in 2004 with the most recent volume published in 2022.
The pace and tenor of the writing is even and contemplative, a rather nice antidote to the clamorous tone of determinedly contemporary works, not to mention the moral and ethical cacophony of public behaviour and discourse.
As well as being a sleuth, Isabel is a moral philosopher, a job description you’d like to claim when filling in one of those forms you often have to complete, or when applying for a loan or a mortgage.
And while we’re on the subject of money, Isabel is rich, stinking rich, thanks to an inheritance from her late mother. As befits her calling, she is very aware of the difficulties and responsibilities associated with wealth, in such a way that you aren’t tempted to scoff yeah, right, OK for her.
Isabel’s paying job (not paying very much) is the editor and soon-to-be owner of the ‘Review Of Applied Ethics’, a print journal which sees words ‘invested with all the authority that printer’s ink on the page can impart’. No dodgy electronic files here with their lack of probity. Manuscripts from all over the world arrive in envelopes. Many letters are written by hand. Routine activities such as reading and correcting pages of proofs are balanced by ethically assessing competing pitches for publication, aware of how much published work means to struggling and emerging academics.
In Isabel’s professional life as well as her personal, the most mundane action may be scrutinised in detail for its morality, significance, effect on oneself and others.
Isabel becomes involved in exploring and solving troubling situations because she is known to have an enquiring and fair mind. People ask her to investigate cases such as the death of an artist on the island Jura, art fraud, a doctor who may have been unfairly disgraced, poison pen letters about the applicant for an academic position. They aren’t high-octane scenarios, but you will have gathered that one doesn’t enter the Dalhousie universe for a thrill a minute or even a month. But the sleuthing activities provide a useful hook for the exploration of other issues, and each case has elements of moral complexity.
The raciest thing Isabel does is have an affair with and then marry a man who is not only her niece Cat’s ex-boyfriend but is also about 14 years younger than Isabel, who is in her 40s. Way to go, Isabel, as no one says.
Isabel’s painful ruminations about the implications of both these factors are balanced by the description of the growing love between her and Jamie and how, with the birth of their two sons, they evolve into a family. We become very familiar with Jamie’s physical beauty, but it’s presented so tenderly that you don’t often think that’s enough, now.
Civilised closed world
The calm surface of Isabel’s world is given concreteness and texture by descriptions of people and places and food which bring colour and energy to the narrative.
Jamie is one of a cast of recurring characters which includes Cat and her stream of unsuitable boyfriends (Jamie having made a timely escape, natch), Cat’s assistant Eddie, a young man with a traumatic past, Isabel’s housekeeper Grace with her entrenched views on spiritualism and everything else, and the splendid Brother Fox who lives at the bottom of the garden. No, he’s not a monk in a shed, he’s an urban fox who brings delight.
Isabel’s Edinburgh, a small, closed world which sometimes needs to be negotiated with care, is populated by the comfortably-off educated and professional classes, who enjoy and support literature and music and the arts and go to concerts and exhibitions, often featuring real Edinburgh people. They have civilised and sometimes erudite conversations. Jamie jokes, or maybe he doesn’t, that everybody in Edinburgh is a doctor or a lawyer.
Real people make appearances — Guy Peploe of the Scottish Gallery in Dundas Street plays a major role. A character called Peter Stevenson is a real friend of the author, and they both play in the real Really Terrible Orchestra. No Ian Rankin though; he is reserved for McCall Smith’s other series about Edinburgh dwellers, Scotland Street.
This is not a world of fine dining and swanky restaurants. The references to green olives, mozzarella, pesto, French cheeses, soup, pasta, open sandwiches, quiche, anchovies create the deli/cafe vibe which characterises the environment of the books. Food matters, though. Truffle oil is mentioned. Baby Charlie’s first word is ‘olive’.
Guided tour of Edinburgh
The places leap off the page.You could try reading some chapters with an Edinburgh Street Map by your side (more Isabel’s style than Google maps). Follow Isabel’s familiar trajectory from her Victorian house in Merchiston to Cat’s delicatessen in Bruntsfield (a 20-minute walk).
Go to nearby real-life Falko’s Konditorei, the German bakery and coffee shop just up the street from Cat’s. Follow Isabel and Jamie to the National Portrait Gallery — Jamie proposes to Isabel in the tea room — and St Cecilia’s Hall and the Queen’s Hall (Jamie is a professional bassoonist).
Trace Isabel’s route to the real auction house Lyon and Turnbull, along the High Street down the Mound and on to Queen Street. Honestly, you feel as if you are there. And then there’s Dean Village and the Waters of Leith and the Stockbridge Colonies…
Just as Isabel will follow a thread of thought and consider all the ethical implications of every side of the question, so the reader can be drawn into absorbing considerations of minor issues.
Isabel briefly contemplates different systems for arranging books, a train of thought sparked by a reference to a professor of American history and politics who shelves his books in accordance with the geography of the USA — books about Alaska are placed top left, those about the Midwest go in the middle and those pertaining to Florida go on the lowest right-hand shelf. Isabel plays with the idea of other schemes, such as putting books from left to right according to their political leaning, or arranging them according to the age of the author.
How would a moral philosopher view the Zoom call era practice of organizing our libraries and book collections to make us look interesting and well-read, or to reflect our visual aesthetic? Just one area of life in which we might quail before a forensic scrutineer of motives and choices.
However, Isabel would be kind to us, I think. She is the prime upholder of the values of compassion, love, understanding and tolerance which inform the novels.
The reader can be drawn in to the practice of contemplation and of applying philosophical concerns to, for example, the way we make decisions and how we treat people. Our everyday lives may be enhanced by adopting these habits.
And that is why, when you open one of the Sunday Philosophy Club books, you feel that just for a few hours you will be part of this calm, civilised and engaging world full of intelligent and articulate people, imposing, quirky and historical homes and buildings, music, art and lovely things to eat and drink, with the odd criminal activity thrown in.
If you hang around long enough, you might get invited to a dinner party.