Monday, September 19, 2005

Review: Alexander McCall Smith's Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

Alexander McCall Smith's 'Friends, Lovers, Chocolate'

By Edward Nawotka


Sunday, September 18, 2005

What kind of a title is "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate" for a mystery? It sounds better suited to a romance novel or a cookbook. Yet that's what Alexander McCall Smith, author of the immensely popular "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," has decided to call his latest whodunit.

Smith, who has sold some 3.5 million copies of his franchise series, is fond of such adamantly sweet titles. The last two "No. 1 Ladies" books were called "The Full Cupboard of Life" and "The Company of Cheerful Ladies." The next one, coming out in the spring, is "Blue Shoes and Happiness."

Give Smith credit for truth in advertising. The heroine of the "No. 1 Ladies" books is Precious Ramotswe, a Botswana detective with a milewide optimistic streak who putters around Gabarone in her "little white van" dispensing folksy advice, collecting orphans, settling lovers' quarrels and solving the occasional bloodless crime. Precious likes to eat (Smith calls her "traditionally built") and solves many of her mysteries while in quiet contemplation over a cup of red bush tea shared with her assistant.

These books are, for the most part, delightful. In Smith's eyes, Botswana is a place where good, hard-working people make the most out of their modest circumstances and there is little moral ambiguity. Those who don't play by the rules usually come to know shame and the failure of their ways.

Some have criticized the books as disingenuous -- for example, they rarely mention AIDS -- but Smith, who was born in nearby Zimbabwe and taught for a time in Botswana, has chosen his setting carefully. Botswana has a small population and some of the

largest diamond mines in the world. The government's longstanding partnership with mine operator DeBeers has given Botswana the fastest growing economy in Africa and made it one of the few politically stable nations on the continent. AIDS is an immense problem, but the force of pride prevents many from discussing it openly. (Which, of course, only makes matters worse.) Having lived in Botswana myself, I can verify that it's an oddly contented place.

Like the "No. 1 Ladies" books, Smith's latest series, "The Sunday Philosophy Club," features a middle-aged woman as its sleuth. Isabel Dalhousie lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, (as does Smith) and is a practicing philosopher who edits the Review of Applied Ethics. Like Precious, Isabel enjoys long daydreams while relaxing with a drink (though wine, rather than red tea, is her libation of choice). Both are women of limited, but adequate, means: Precious sold an inheritance of cattle to start her detective agency, while Isabel inherited shares in a Louisiana land company from her American mother. Both women draw on private sources of wisdom: When in a jam, Precious thinks back on advice that her deceased father gave her; Isabel relies on the poetry of W.H. Auden. Isabel is, for all intents and purposes, a European version of Precious.

But unlike the "No. 1 Ladies" books, Isabel's adventures are not entirely bloodless. The first in the series, last year's "The Sunday Philosophy Club," featured a man leaping to his death in the opening pages. The second, "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate," which arrives in stores this week, finds Isabel infatuated with her niece's ex-boyfriend Jamie, a musician 15-years her junior. She is also intrigued by a man who is the recipient of a heart transplant and is haunted by the former owner's memories, leaving him with the suspicion the other man was murdered. It's not quite as gritty as the crime novels of Smith's fellow Edinburghian, Ian Rankin, but it's a start.

Still, politics and any other matters beyond the characters' immediate concerns don't rate much discussion -- and even when they do, the discussion tends to defuse the issue at hand rather than illuminate or dramatize it. In "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate," Isabel dismisses her housekeeper's son's potentially violent politics with the observation, "He used to collect stamps, then he took up nationalism."

Though Isabel appears more cerebral than Precious, in the end, she is no less confident in her morality than her African counterpart. Here she is worrying over writing a rejection letter for a paper submitted to the Review entitled "The Rightness of Vice":

'It was impossible, thought Isabel. . . . She went over in her mind some of the vices explored by the author, but stopped. Even by their Latin names, these vices barely bore thinking about. Did people really do that? . . . Well, she had a responsibility to her readers. She could not defend the indefensible. She would send the article back with a short note, something like: Dear Professor, I'm so sorry, but we just can't. People feel very strongly about these things, you know. And they would blame me for what you say. They really would. Yours sincerely, Isabel Dalhousie.'

Later, she reflects on the fact that another author died shortly after receiving a similar rejection letter, and worries that she had "made his last few days unhappy." She concludes that she could not have reached any other decision about the manuscript, but "the imminence of death might make one ponder one's actions more carefully. If we treated others with the consideration that one would give to those who had only a few days to live, then we would be kinder at least."

A little of this sort of greeting-card morality -- there's nothing wrong with these sentiments, they just seem to exist in a rarified universe where vice is not only forbidden, it's unthinkable -- goes a long way. And there's an awful lot of it in Smith's books. At one point, in the voice of Isabel, he seems to acknowledge this critique: "It is hard to make goodness -- and good people -- sound interesting," he writes in "Friends, Lovers, Chocolate." "Yet the good were worthy of note, of course, because they battled and that battle was a great story, whereas the evil were evil because of moral laziness or weakness, and that was ultimately a dull or uninteresting affair."

It's a philosophy that runs counter to much mystery writing, which often requires a hero to dwell in the morally ambiguous fringe of conventional society; in many cases, fictional detectives commit crimes themselves in order to solve a crime. A good example of this is on display in the best-selling series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" and "Dearly Devoted Dexter," which feature a vigilante serial killer who only kills, get this, other serial killers.

Precious and Isabel, by contrast, are detectives by virtue of temperament and good breeding. If their goodness is, as Smith suggests, the result of a battle, it's a battle he never takes the trouble to depict.

Indeed, though Smith's books are very charming, they're not mystery novels -- they're romances.

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