Nothing captures the charm of Edinburgh like the bestselling Isabel Dalhousie series of novels featuring the insatiably curious philosopher and woman detective. Whether investigating a case or a problem of philosophy, the indefatigable Isabel Dalhousie, one of fiction’s most richly developed amateur detectives, is always ready to pursue the answers to all of life’s questions, large and small.
Isabel has been asked to discreetly investigate the candidates for the position of headmaster at a local boys’ school. The board has three final candidates but has received an anonymous letter alleging that one of them is not suitable.What she discovers about the candidates is surprising, but what she discovers about herself and about Jamie, the father of her young son, turns out to be equally revealing. Isabel’s investigation will have her exploring issues of ambition, as well as of charity, forgiveness, and humility, as she moves nearer and nearer to some of the most hidden precincts of the human heart.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
Read an Excerpt
THE NEXT DAY was a working day for Isabel. As editor—and now owner—of the Review of Applied Ethics, she could determine her own working patterns, but only to an extent. The journal was quarterly, which might have led outsiders to think that Isabel’s job could hardly be onerous. Such outsiders would be wrong—as outsiders usually are about most things. Although three months intervened between the appearance of each issue of the journal, those three months were regulated by a series of chores that were as regular as the tides, and as unforgiving. Papers had to be sent out for review and, if accepted for publication, edited. The professors of philosophy who wrote these papers were, as Isabel had discovered, only human; they made mistakes in their grammar—egregious mistakes in some cases even if in others only minor solecisms. She corrected most of these, trying not to seem too pedantic in the process. She allowed the collective plural: If you wish to reform a person, you should tell them—Isabel allowed the them because there were those who objected strongly to gendered pronouns. So you could not tell him in such circumstances, but would have to tell him or her, which became ungainly and awkward, and sounded like the punctilious language of the legal draughtsman. She also allowed inﬁnitives to be split, which they were with great regularity, because that rule was now almost universally ignored and its authority, anyway, was questionable. Who established that precept, anyway? Why not split an inﬁnitive if one wanted to? The sense was as easily understood whether or not the inﬁnitive was sundered apart or left inviolate.
But it was not just the editing of papers that took up her time. An important part of each issue was the review section, where four or ﬁve recent books in the ﬁeld of ethics were reviewed at some length, and a few others, less favoured, were given brief notices. Then there was a short column headed Books Received, which listed other books that had been sent by publishers and were not going to be given a review. It was an ignominious fate for a book, but it was better than nothing. At least the journal acknowledged the fact that the book had been published, which was perhaps as much as some authors could hope for. Some books, even less favoured, got not even that; they fell leaden from the presses, unread, unremarked upon by anyone. Yet somewhere, behind those unreadable tomes, there was an author, the proud parent of that particular book, for whom it might even be the crowning achievement of a career; and all that happened on publication was silence, a profound and unfathomable silence.
That morning, four large padded envelopes were sitting on Isabel’s desk in her large Victorian house in Merchiston. She closed the study door behind her, and looked at her desk. The four packages were clearly books—they had that look to them— and several other envelopes which her housekeeper, Grace, had retrieved from the ﬂoor of the hall were just as evidently papers submitted for publication. It would take her until lunchtime to deal with these, she decided; Jamie had a free morning— no bassoon pupils and no rehearsals—which meant that he could devote his time to his son. They were going to Blackford Pond, where the ducks were a source of inﬁnite fascination to Charlie. Then they would go somewhere else, he said, but he had yet to decide where. “Charlie will have views,” he said. “He’ll tell me.”
Charlie now spoke quite well, in primitive sentences with a subject—as often as not himself—and a verb, usually in the present tense but occasionally in the past. His past tense, Isabel had noticed, had a special ring to it. “It is a special past tense he uses,” she said to Jamie. “It is the past regretful. The past regretful is used to express regret over what has happened. All gone is a past regretful, as is Ducks eaten all bread.” He still talked about olives, of course; olive had been his ﬁrst word, and his appetite for olives was as strong as ever. Olives nice, he had said to Isabel the previous day, and she, too, thought that they were nice. They had then looked at one another, Charlie staring at his mother with the intense gaze of childhood. She had waited for him to say something more, but he had not. They had said everything there was to say about olives, it seemed, and so she bent forward and kissed him lightly on his forehead.
She thought of that now as she surveyed her desk. She sighed; she was a mother, but she was also an editor, and a philosopher, and she had to work. Settling herself at her desk, she opened the ﬁrst of the book parcels. Two books tumbled out, accompanied by a compliments slip on which a careless hand had scribbled For favour of a review. Underneath was the date of publication and a request that no review should appear before then. That, thought Isabel, was easily enough complied with, given that journal reviews were sometimes published as much as two years after publication. She herself had reviewed a book eighteen months after publication and had only discovered after her review had been published that the author had died six months previously. It was not a good book, and in her review she had written that she felt that the author’s next book on the subject would be much better. Worse than that, she had commented on a certain lifelessness in the prose. Well, he was dead; perhaps he was dying when he wrote the book. She shuddered at the memory. She had tried to be charitable, but she had not been charitable enough. Remember that, she said to herself; remember that in your dealings with others—they may be dying.
The two books looked interesting enough. One was on the moral implications of being a twin; the second was on the notion of fairness in economic judgements. She was not greatly excited by the economics book—that would be received, she thought . . . unless the author was dying, of course. She turned to the back ﬂap and looked at the photograph of the author. He looked young, she decided, and healthy enough to write another book, which might get a full review. He could be placed in the received pile without risk of . . . she was about to say injustice to herself, when she realised she was being unjust. Just because she was not particularly interested in discussions of fairness in economics, that did not mean that others would not be. No, she would promote the book to the Brief Notice section. That was fair. As for the twins book, on opening it, she saw this sentence: “Because moral obligation comes with closeness, there is a case for saying that the twin owes a greater duty to his or her twin than is owed by non-twins to their siblings.” She frowned. Why? She ﬂicked through several pages and read, at random, “Of the many dilemmas confronting the twin, a particularly demanding one is the decision whether or not to tell one’s twin of a medical diagnosis received. If one twin is diagnosed with a genetic disease, for example a form of cancer in which there is a strong familial element, then the other twin should know.” That, said Isabel to herself, is not a dilemma. You tell.
The twins book would have to be reviewed, and it occurred to Isabel that it would be interesting to have it reviewed by somebody who was a twin. But the twin would have to be a philosopher, and she was not sure if she knew any person answering that description. The author, perhaps, might know; she would write to him and ask him. Of course she could not commit herself to any name that he suggested—authors could not choose their reviewers—but it would be a start.
She opened the next parcel and extracted from it a slender book bound in blue. Tucked into it was a folded letter, which she took out and opened. She saw the heading of the notepaper ﬁrst and caught her breath. Then she read it.
The letter came from Professor Lettuce, the previous chairman of the Review’s editorial board and friend and collaborator of Professor Christopher Dove, the closest thing to an enemy that Isabel was aware of possessing. She had not chosen Dove as an enemy—he had assumed that role himself, and had revealed a ruthless streak in the process. He had recently accused Isabel of publishing a plagiarised article, but had been seen off. Lettuce had initially backed him, but had been persuaded by Isabel to change his ways—“I have been a foolish Lettuce” was his memorable remark on that occasion. Now it appeared that Dove and Lettuce were friends again, because here was Lettuce sending Isabel a new book by Dove and offering to review it.
Dear Isabel [wrote Lettuce],
I hope that this ﬁnds you well and that the Review is thriving in your capable hands. Our mutual friend [our mutual friend, Isabel muttered sotto voce] Chris Dove [Chris!] has, as you may know, written a rather interesting new book. I’m not sure if the publishers have sent you a copy—perhaps they have—but at the risk of burdening you with numerous copies, here is another one. I thought I might offer to review it for you, and have started penning a few thoughts, if that’s all right with you. I’ll do about two thousand words because I think that this is a work that deserves a decent discussion. I’m a bit pressed at the moment—this wretched research assessment business is such a burden—and Dolly [Dolly Lettuce, his wife, thought Isabel. Poor woman. Dolly!] is in the middle of making redecoration plans for our house at Wimbledon, so all is rather fraught on the domestic front—but I should be able to get it done by the end of the month and will send it along then.
Thanks so much for agreeing to this, and please—please—do get in touch with me when you wrench yourself away from the provinces and come to London.
Lunch will be on me.
Isabel felt the discomfort of being outraged but not being sure of which cause of her outrage was the more signiﬁcant. Lettuce had casually insulted Scotland—which was not a province of England, but a country—and an old one at that— within a union with England. Nothing could be more calculated to annoy a Scotswoman, and Lettuce should have known that. But that was merely a matter of personal pride, which Isabel could swallow easily enough; it was more difﬁcult for her to deal with the breathtaking arrogance of his assumption that he could write a review without being asked. He thanked her for agreeing to publish his review—well, she had not agreed and felt highly inclined not to do so, and she would not be bought off with a breezy invitation to lunch in London.
She would write to Lettuce, she decided, and thank him for offering to review Dove’s book, but would say that she must— very reluctantly—decline his offer because . . . She thought of reasons. It would be tempting to say that it was because Dove’s book was not of sufﬁcient interest to merit a review—that was very tempting. Or she might say that she had decided to review the book herself. That was perhaps even more tempting, because it would give her the chance to cast Dove’s book into the outer darkness that it undoubtedly deserved. “This slight contribution to the literature,” she might write, “is unlikely to ﬁnd many readers.” Or, “An effort to elucidate a difﬁcult topic— courageous, yes, but unfortunately a failure.”
She stopped herself. Such thoughts, she told herself, were crude fantasies of revenge. Dove had plotted against her and would have succeeded in hounding her out of her job had she not had the resources to buy the Review from under his nose, and then get rid not only of him but also of Lettuce, who had been his co-conspirator. Dove had planned her removal, but that did not mean that she should stoop to his level and seek revenge by writing a critical review of his book. That would be quite wrong.
She looked up at the ceiling. One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you became aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savour the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fantasising. Well might St. Augustine have said Make me chaste, but not just yet; that was how Isabel felt. And yet she could not; she could not let herself experience the pleasure of getting her own back on Dove because it was, quite simply, always wrong to get one’s own back on another. It was her duty to forgive Dove and, if one were to be really serious about it, to go further than that and to love him. Hate the acts of Doves, not Doves themselves, she muttered; they said that about sin, did they not? Hate the sin, not the sinner.
She put aside Lettuce’s letter and picked up Dove’s book. She read the title, Freedom and Choice: The Limits of Responsibility in a Role-Fixated World. She wrinkled her nose. Was the world really role-ﬁxated? Freedom of choice, though, was a subject in which she was interested, and indeed she had written on the subject when she was still a graduate research fellow. Turning to the end of the book, she found an annotated bibliography. She could see that Dove had been assiduous in his marshalling of the literature, and there, yes, there were her two papers on this subject. And after the ﬁrst of these—a paper that had been published in the Journal of Philosophy, and which had been fairly widely cited—was Dove’s annotation. He had used only one word: Unreliable.
What People are Saying About This
"A seriously charming mix of romance and revelation." Parade Magazine
“McCall Smith continues to capture the best of traditional British mysteries.” —Sacramento Book Review
“Like Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Isabel has the gift of an expansive, forgiving humanity which embraces the world it inhabits.” —The Scotsman
“Lighthearted . . . spiced by [McCall Smith’s] own subtle humor.” —The Washington Times
“McCall Smith’s heroes are among the most endearing in contemporary fiction . . . because they're so humble in their quest for goodness.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Isabel is a force to be reckoned with.” —USA Today
“Charmingly told. . . . Its graceful prose shines, and Isabel’s interior monologues—meditations on a variety of moral questions—are bemused, intelligent and entertaining.” —The Seattle Times
“Endearing. . . . Offers tantalizing glimpses of Edinburgh’s complex character and a nice, long look into the beautiful mind of a thinking woman.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In Mma Ramotswe, [McCall Smith] minted one of the most memorable heroines in any modern fiction. Now, with the creation of Isabel Dalhousie, he’s done it again. . . . She’s such good company, it’s hard to believe she’s fictional. You finish [one] installment greedily looking forward to more.” —Newsweek
Reading Group Guide
1. In an Entertainment Weekly interview Alexander McCall Smith was asked which fictional character he most identifies with, and he answered, “Isabel Dalhousie and I agree on just about everything. She seems to think as I do.” Which one of his characters do you most identify or agree with?
2. One of the early reviews called The Charming Quirks of Others “a powerful demonstration of McCall Smith’s ability to dramatize the ways everyday situations spawn the ethical dilemmas that keep philosophers in business.” (Kirkus Reviews) Describe some of the dilemmas in the book and discuss what you would have done in Isabel’s or another character’s place.
3. The novel opens with Isabel and Guy Peploe discussing gossip. How does this conversation allude to later events in the book? What is your feeling on gossip? Is it harmless and/or pointless? Does it have real purpose in social settings?
4. Do you agree with Isabel when she considers that “people were only too ready to believe things that were manifestly untrue” and that people are happy to hear others cast in a negative light? Do you think we all do this despite our better judgment?
5. The author discusses the dilemma of a working mother in this novel. “I could spend all my time with Charlie, which is what I would love to do. But would I be any happier? And would it make any difference to Charlie?” Discuss this, and how child rearing is extremely important for a mother, but so is working and feeling responsible for something outside the home. If you have children, did you go to work while raising them or did you stay home, and how did you come to your decision to do one or the other?
6. Isabel often acts on her intuition; sometimes it leads her to the truth, sometimes not. What is your opinion about acting with your gut, or on simple intuition? Discuss some situations where your intuition was correct, and some where it was not.
7. Discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.
8. What do you think the author is saying about different kinds of love in the novel (loving your children, your partner, your friends, all of humanity)?
9. What do you make of the title? If we look at others faults as charming or positive, would it be easier to accept or put up with them? And if we openly accepted our own faults, would it be easier to accept others faults? What does Isabel think?
10. Isabel is jealous of Jamie and his friendship with a fellow musician. How does she overcome her jealousy? What are other ways people overcome jealousy? Are there situations where one should simply accept your jealousy and address it head on?
11. Discuss the importance of songs and poetry in this and in all of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels. What role does music and poetry play in the novels and in life?
12. Who are some of the poets that Alexander McCall Smith often quotes in his novels, especially in this Isabel Dalhousie series? Who are some of your favorite poets?
13. Another important cultural element in Isabel’s life, in addition to music and poetry, is art. Various artists are mentioned and this novel focuses on a particular piece of art by Scottish painter Raeburn. How is art tied to Isabel’s life and this novel? Why is Isabel generous with this particular painting of her ancestor?
14. How do art and music help Isabel deal with the ethical issues that pop up in the novels and with the detective work she does “helping” others?
15. Isabel wishes for happiness for Harold Slade, whom she really does not care for and who is a bit of a bully, and she states, “Although it’s harder to love, it’s always better.” Do you agree? Discuss a situation you’ve been in where this worked for you.
16. Do you agree with the final phrase of the book, “Loving anything with all your heart always brings about understanding, in time.” How does this sentence epitomize or summarize the novel for you?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)