We like to read crime and detective nobels about places we’re headed. We’re off to Edinburgh in a month or so, so Alexander McCall Smith, seemed like a man to try. Even though he’s probably more famous for his African series The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency he’s got an Edinburgh character who’s an original in her own right, and one can find her thriving in The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds.
Isabel Dalhousie runs a philosophy journal. In between she solves crimes. It’s an odd kind of approach for a mystery. Isabel isn’t a detective. She just helps people solve difficulties from time to time, and she’s definitely a reluctant participant. Still, she is interested in people and their problems and can’t quite keep her hands and mind from connecting when people ask for help.
Clouds has a sort of double meaning, one of which is that isable has her head in the clouds much of the time. The crime in question is the theft of a piece of art from the private collection of a local rich guy. Suspects are many. As she meanders through her days, dealing not only with the crime, but with a temperamental nanny to her 3-year-old and the demands of a musician husband, who is long, but not infinite, on patience for her musings, we spend a great deal of time inside her philosophical mind. Every step triggers new moral and intellectual angles to the situation. Both the criminal one and more mundane matters.
One would think this approach would ring the death knell to a crime novel. Where’s the action? where’s the game? Beats me how he does it, but Smith pulls it off. You have to read it yourself to figure out how. Oh, and did I mention that not a drop of blood is shed? Or even a punch thrown? Nary a slap in the face. It’s true.
An utterly unique and an utterly absorbing read whether you’re headed for Edinburgh or not.