The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith: a book discussion

September 17, 2016 at 5:13 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

sunday-philosophy  An especially interesting aspect of the recent Usual Suspects discussion of The Sunday Philosophy Club centered on Isabel Dalhousie’s character. To sum up the various opinions on offer:

She seems like someone in her sixties, not in her early forties, as she’s purported to be. (Actually I get this observation. In my post on The Careful Use of Compliments, I said that I envision Isabel as a model for a dress of the mid-twentieth century. Here’s the image I selected:  shirtwaist2 )

She keeps “bumping into herself” (love that locution!), trying to use reason to understand and control feelings, an effort that’s pretty much doomed to fail.

She’s judgmental. (I probably didn’t mind this characteristic because her judgments so often agree with mine.)

She’s pretentious and/or arrogant (two adjectives which I would not myself have thought to apply to her, so I was interested to learn that others found them apt, in the circumstances.)

Ann felt impatient with Isabel’s philosophizing; she felt that it got in the way of the plot. Others among us felt that the philosophical questions deeply enriched the novel.

In this passage, Isabel considers the importance of good manners:

It was so easy dealing with people who were well-mannered…. They knew how to exchange those courtesies which made life go smoothly, which was what manners were all about. They were intended to avoid friction between people, and they did this by regulating the contours of an encounter. If each party knew what the other should do, then conflict would be unlikely. And this worked at every level, from the most minor transaction between two people to dealings between nations. International law, after all, was simply a system of manners writ large.

How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affectation, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. In this way an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results: a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm.

Our group more or less agreed with these sentiments. Yet Isabel admits that even thinking about such a thing makes her feel old.

We spent some time on the subject of judgment and the judging of others. Was Isabel, in fact, any more judgmental than most people? The reader spends a great deal of time inside Isabel’s head, as it were. She forms strong opinions in that confined space – don’t most of us do the same? – but does she act on them, or even speak them aloud, except in specific circumstances?

Isabel’s back story is crucial to an understanding of how she lives the life that we witness unfolding in The Sunday Philosophy Club. Her father was Scottish; her mother, American. Isabel herself has spent relatively little time in the U.S. (She makes frequent reference to “my sainted American mother,” an appellation whose origin is not clear, at least not to me.) She holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University; we may take it as a given that she’s a intensely intellectual person.

As with many intellectuals, Isabel could also be passionate and impulsive. She was especially so in her youth, when such emotions are not uncommon. At Cambridge, she fell in love with John Liamor, an Irishman who seems to have had a high opinion of himself. Isabel married him and in short order was betrayed and deserted by him. The anguish caused by this episode has left a deep scar. It may be partly responsible for her seeming to be older than she actually is. Although she has numerous friends and associates in Edinburgh, she seems to have deliberately walled herself off from any intimacy that could cause her further pain. In this novel, however, we perceive her emerging, however tentatively, from this self-imposed isolation.

(We Suspects grappled with the question of whether Isabel still had feelings for John Liamor, and if so, what those feelings consisted of. Might she still even be in love with him? We reached no definite conclusion. McCall Smith is somewhat evasive on the question.)

Isabel’s tendency to involve herself in the affairs of others springs from several sources. She’s a naturally curious individual, and people excite that curiosity more than anything else. She wants to understand their motivations, their perception of the rightness and wrongness of their actions. (This is undoubtedly a large part of what impelled her to take up the study of moral philosophy, which has culminated in her becoming the editor of a small, specialized and highly respected journal, The Review of Applied Ethics.)

Also, she feels bound by the concept of moral proximity, which dictates that if you have a degree of closeness to another person, and that person is in some sort of trouble, then you are morally obliged to render aid in any way you can. This is one of the ways in which she justifies what others might term just plain nosiness, or even unwarranted interference in matters which are none of her concern.

But in the case of Mark Fraser, a young man who fatally falls “from the gods” – the British term for a theater’s upper balcony – Isabel feels obliged to look into the cause of his untimely demise. She had been at the concert where this terrible event occurred. She had witnessed the fall. There were some in our group who considered the ensuing mystery to be rather thin. I would concede that Isabel’s investigation does at times seem crowded out by other aspects of the novel. This is particularly true of her relationship with her niece Cat, a somewhat flighty young woman who runs a delicatessen not far from Isabel’s house. Cat runs through boyfriends at a pretty good clip. Jamie, one of her discarded lovers, has become a close friend of Isabel’s – and might be in the process of becoming more than a friend, even though he is still, to some extent, pining for Cat.

Spoiler Alert

In the course of the novel, Isabel does solve the mystery of Mark Fraser’s death. His fatal fall was inadvertently precipitated by a disagreement that turned physical. When she has elicited a confession from the responsible party, Isabel proceeds to offer him absolution. This information, in other words, will go no further – certainly not as far as a revelation to law enforcement. Upon finishing the book, my immediate thought was, what right does she have to do this? The question came up in our group and prompted a discussion of who among the fictional crime solvers that we know of have done likewise? Agatha Christie was mentioned, as was Conan Doyle in certain of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

(As it happens, my husband and I recently watched one of the early Poirot films “The King of Clubs,” in which the famed Belgian sleuth and the loyal Captain Hastings agree to suppress the truth concerning an accidental death. I haven’t yet had the chance to read  the short story that serves as the basis for this film, in order to see if this is a faithful recounting of the original text.)

Most members of our group had not read any further in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Frances and I, on the other hand, were faithful followers, and had read all of them. When queried as to whether there was a “character arc” where Isabel was concerned – does she, in other words, change as the novels progress – we responded in the affirmative, declining to reveal any more. I will say this much: having read the latest entry, The Novel Habit of Happiness, earlier this year, I was struck by how sad and solitary Isabel’s life seems at the beginning of this series, and how increasingly rich and full it becomes as the series goes forward. Small wonder that she becomes, in some ways at least, a changed woman!

End of Spoiler Alert

Our discussion touched briefly on Isabel’s wealth, the result of an inheritance from her mother. She lives in what seems to be a large and gracious abode in a good section of Edinburgh. She has the full time services of a housekeeper named Grace, also inherited, this time from her late father. (One might wonder how Grace keeps occupied, looking after a house inhabited by a sole adult. As it happens, she and Isabel spend a  fair amount of time chatting to each other about various  subjects of interest to them both.) Isabel is generous with money but also discreet.

Our discussion was skillfully led by Chris, who also graciously offered her premises for our meeting. In her follow-up email, Carol had this to say: “Although we did not all agree, we had a friendly and interesting exchange of observations and opinions.”

 She’s exactly right. It was a most stimulating, thoroughly enjoyable discussion. There was plenty of scope for differing views, which is what you want in such a setting. It was conducted in the spirit of enlightened inquiry. Well done, Suspects!
Just a brief, personal and completely subjective word on this book in particular, and the series in general. Alexander McCall Smith simply amazes me with his ability to penetrate to the heart and soul of this woman. (Of course he does likewise with Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi the No.1 Ladies Detective series.) His writing  is marvelous, and rises to the poetic when he’s describing his  beloved Edinburgh:

Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. 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.

I first read The Sunday Philosophy Club when it came out in 2004. I revisited it this time by listening to Davina Porter’s reading on audiobook. It is superb. The Scottish lilt that she commands is irresistible. I was so enraptured that I proceeded immediately to the second title in the series, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate. I was unable to get this one on audio, so I read it the old fashioned way. It was the only book in the series that I had somehow previously missed. If anything, it is even better that The Sunday Philosophy Club. It, too, would be great for a book discussion.

For his felicitous prose, vivid imagination, and sly wit – don’t miss The Dog Who Came In from the Cold,  featuring my favorite fictional canine, Freddie de la Hay – – I salute this author. He is one of my absolute favorites – brilliant!

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith

I just have to share this serendipitous discovery with all my book loving friends: In the process of researching the phrase “the gods in theatrical parlance,” I came upon a Google Books result that truly stunned me: a facsimile of an 1867 edition of All the Year Round, a weekly magazine put out by Charles Dickens. I knew about this journal but had never thought to actually lay eyes upon it, albeit digitally speaking.


  1. Michelle Ann said,

    I read this many years ago, having enjoyed the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, but found, like some of your members, that the constant philosophising got in the way of the story. I also thought that the police investigation was so inept as to be unrealistic, so I never read another of this series. However, I agree he is a good writer, and you have made the series sound very entertaining, so perhaps I’ll give it another go.

  2. Britton Gildersleeve said,

    I’m teaching this book as part of a series on mysteries. I adore the Dalhousie books, but have to confess that no one I recommend them to seems to agree! So I’m reassured to see your articulate defense of them.

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