Prolific McCall Smith back with another mystery

THE UNCOMMON APPEAL
OF CLOUDS

By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, $24.95;
259 pp.

Isabel Dalhousie is one of those characters that the reader wants to give advice to. The situations she gets herself into are not of the “don’t go in that house!” or “stay away from the guy with the knife!” variety. However, the reader is tempted to tell her not to become involved in the case of a stolen painting, especially since Isabel is a professional philosopher (to the extent that such a thing exists) and not a private detective. Her husband Jamie’s role seems to be primarily to give her exactly this advice, and not to be surprised when she ignores it.

Like all good fictional characters, Isabel does the things we ourselves would have the sense not to. In The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, she agrees to help Duncan Munrowe find his lost Poussin. As she investigates, Isabel finds that the theft of the painting is less interesting than the man’s relationships with his grown children. She wonders whether one of them might be responsible for the crime.

At the same time, Isabel has her own little worries. How can she tactfully dissuade her housekeeper Grace who insists on teaching her 3-year-old son math based on possibly illegitimate methods? And should she help her friend Eddie convince his girlfriend’s parents that he is worthy of her affection?

Isabel’s tendency to overthink these problems is one of her most endearing qualities. Her reflections sometimes send her on long tangents unrelated to whatever her current conundrum might be. While talking to the man whose painting she is trying to recover, she finds her mind wandering. “Was Duncan speaking to her? She had been thinking about unearned money and her father and coal mining, and as often happened when she was thinking, time because slightly distorted and seemed to pass without her realising it.”

Perhaps Isabel’s slightly off-the-wall reflections are the key to making the reader sympathize with this woman who seems to have it all: a handsome and kind husband, an abnormally even-tempered child, a job she loves and plenty of money. It also helps that Isabel is aware of her own good fortune and ruminates on it in the way that only someone who is a philosopher at heart can.

Another appealing feature of McCall Smith’s books is that he doesn’t feel the need to tie everything up neatly. In his novels, as in life, some problems are solved, others resolve through the natural course of events and still more remain. In the latter case, the people involved simply have to accept the situation as it is and move on with their lives. Like every philosopher, Isabel does not find all the answers, but she still keeps searching.