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by Alexander McCall Smith
Little, Brown, September 2004
288 pages
ISBN: 0316728179

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If you like Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana series, you will no doubt lap this book up, and if you are a fan of the likes of Mo Hayder, don't even go there.

McCall Smith, the university academic-turned-crime fiction sensation, seems to be starting a single-handed campaign to bring niceness back into writing. He took some pot-shots not so long ago at the likes of fellow Scottish writers Irvine Welsh -- basically for writing about nasty things like drugs and for cussing a lot.

THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB is really very civilised, as you might therefore expect. Isabel Dalhousie is a 40-something woman of independent means who lives in a large Edinburgh house with an housekeeper to look after her, and who spends her time editing a philosophical journal and being seen at all the right parties and exhibitions. Her pleasant lifestyle is disturbed, though, when, during a night out at a concert, she witnesses a young man falling from the top balcony.

Isabel is very much like Mma Ramotswe, star of THE NO. I LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY. Separated by continent and culture, they are, nevertheless, two mature women with an able female sidekick and a code to live their lives by. But whereas Precious's no-nonsense commonsense is attractive, Isabel's privileged lifestyle jars hideously and puts her way out of touch with real life. In fact, THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB in no way resembles real life -- it's so slight that a puff of wind would send it sailing into the North Sea, and is more a fantasy of what McCall Smith would like one exclusive patch of Edinburgh to be. Or maybe it is and he's writing about his own back yard, so to speak.

I suspect many jaded 21st century palates welcomed THE NO. I LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY for its portrayal of a simpler way of life. I was charmed by it -- mainly I think, for its novelty value, although I could never quite decide if it veered too close to the patronising. But I never got beyond page 50 of book two, as it was basically more of the same.

With THE SUNDAY PHILOSOPHY CLUB, though, I don't know whether to congratulate McCall Smith on his unflagging optimism, or be angry that he's selling his audience a pup. And whichever, the ending stinks -- it's the biggest cop-out I've ever seen in my life and betrays all the author has done to set up this supposedly moral and thoughtful character of Isabel. I'm sure lots of people will buy this book and the author will make a fortune out of it. But, as Johnny Rotten said: "Ever get the feeling you've been had?"

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, October 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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