The Careful Use of Compliments, by Alexander McCall Smith

>> Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TITLE: The Careful Use of Compliments
AUTHOR: Alexander McCall Smith

PAGES: 261

SETTING: Contemporary Scotland
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: 4th in the Sunday Philosophy Club series.

REASON FOR READING: Random pick at the library.

In the fourth installment of this enchanting, beloved series, Isabel Dalhousie, who is now a mother, returns to investigate an irresistible puzzle in the art world.

Isabel Dalhousie—the nosiest and most sympathetic philosopher you are likely to meet—now has a son, Charlie, whose doting father Jamie has an intriguing idea to pose to Isabel: marriage. But Isabel wonders if Jamie is too young to be serious? And how would Cat respond? On top of these matters, the ambitious Professor Dove has seized Isabel's position as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. However, nothing it seems can diminish Isabel's innate curiosity. And when she recognizes that two paintings attributed to a deceased artist have simultaneously appeared on the market, she can't help but think that they're forgeries. So Isabel begins an investigation and soon finds herself diverted from her musings about parenthood and onto a path of inquiry into the soul of an artist.
I wondered if I should keep reading when I started The Careful Use of Compliments. I picked this one up at the library without knowing anything about it, so I hadn't realised that it was the 4th in a series. That was immediately clear once I started reading: a lot had happened to these characters in previous books. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher and the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. She is involved in a relationship with a much younger man, Jamie, who used to date her niece, Cat. Not only that: Isabel has just had a baby by him, little Charlie. All this seems to have happened in the previous books, and in the first couple of chapters, there are also mentions of other characters I would probably have recognised had I read those earlier installments. I wondered if I shouldn't just go back to the library and start at the beginning.

Being lazy, however, I just kept on reading, and I'm glad I did. McCall Smith brings the reader up to date in the first few chapters, and even though it does feel a bit awkward, once that's done, it's done, and TCUOC stands alone perfectly well.

There are quite a few things going on during the book. Isabel's position as the editor of the Review is threatened by, as she calls it, palace intrigue. She gets mixed up in the mystery of the provenance of soem paintings supposedly done by the late painter Andrew MacInnes. Cat, who has previously studiously ignored the issue of Jamie and Charlie invites Isabel and Jamie to a dinner party. And Isabel's housekeeper, Grace, is taking over the care of Charlie. Not to mention, Isabel and Jamie's relationship keeps progressing in fits and starts.

That sounds like quite a lot, but it's all very relaxing and undramatic. Most of those issues are done in a very understated and relaxed manner, without much excitement. My least favourite was probably the bit with the paintings. I just couldn't work up much interest in it. The one I liked best was the threat to Isabel's position as editor. Right until the end, I suspected the author was not going to let Isabel deal with it as she really should. She's presented as a very thoughtful person, very concerned with doing the right thing, and I thought that was going to be used as an excuse for her making a decision that would have let really poisonous people get their way. She doesn't. Justice is done, and it's clear Isabel isn't above a bit of pettiness, which made me like her even better and kept her from being a bit too goody goody.

An enjoyable read, but possibly a bit too low key, and one that ends with a whimper.



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