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An Open Letter to Alexander McCall Smith

October 11, 2010

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am sorry. I have been a jerk.

For years, I have thought of you as an Author I Don’t Like. (You may take heart in being in august company, as I can’t stand Hemingway either.) It began with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which my mother loved, and handed off to me. I don’t remember why I gave up a few chapters in. I remember Precious Ramatswe drinking red bush tea. I like red bush tea. I usually like mysteries. Maybe I found the pace of your first novel a little too meandering. Maybe I was in finals week at college, which made me mean. Maybe I was hungry.

I must have tried one of your other series. A glance at the inner jacket of The Charming Quirks of Others reveals that you haven’t let my disdain give you writer’s block. Good for you! You’ve been busy, in Africa, in England, in Scotland. And I always read your titles a little regretfully, even, thinking “It’s a pity I don’t like Alexander McCall Smith, because “At The Villa of Reduced Circumstances” or “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built” or “The Unbearable Lightness of Scones” sound like such good titles. Oh well.”

I should have tried the Scotland series, starring Isabel Dalhousie, sooner. They’re set in Edinburgh. I love Edinburgh. So, even though I’m finding my introduction to the series a tad slow to get going on the mystery bits, I don’t mind. I like wandering around Edinburgh. I’ve been there. I wish I could go back.

Isabel is a philosopher who edits a journal and occasionally gets asked to look into things, or help with things. Not to investigate, really, and not to meddle, which is what her partner, Jamie, thinks she is doing. I’m picking up Isabel’s life with Jamie quite nicely. They’re sweet together. And the investigation, though meandering, makes a certain amount of sense, if not much suspense just yet. (I’ve fallen into a habit of reviewing books while I’m not all the way through them. Shame on me.)

It occurs to me I don’t actually know what philosophers do. There’s either a joke, or some kind of academic and logical crux to that statement, I’m sure. I never took a philosophy class in college. I have a very very smart cousin who has written philosophy. And as much as I can gather from the book so far, and from Billy’s article, it’s about constructing arguments and language, and about ethics. Which strikes me as an interesting perspective for someone who’s solving a mystery. Isabel seems a bit fanciful, prone to spout odd facts or make connections those around her sometimes have trouble catching. So, things are proceeding at a far less linear pace than I’m used to from a less-philosophical mystery.

But still, it’s set in Edinburgh. How bad can it be?

Anyway, Mr. McCall Smith, I’m sorry I’ve been prejudiced against your books all these years. When you’re in New York promoting The Charming Quirks of Others, drop me a line, and I’ll buy you a beer.



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