Alexander McCall Smith gets away with a lot. He not only writes novels from a female perspective--he writes best- selling novels from a female perspective. His "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" mysteries--six novels set in Botswana featuring an overweight middle-aged sleuth named Precious Ramotswe--have sold more than 5 million copies here and in Britain. Smith gets away with a lot in his mysteries, too, which frankly aren't all that mysterious because, like most good crime writers, Smith uses murder only as a pretext to explore character. In Mme. Ramotswe, he minted one of the most memorable heroines in any modern fiction. Now, with the creation of Isabel Dalhousie, the amateur sleuth who debuts in "The Sunday Philosophy Club," he's done it again.
Like Precious Ramotswe, Isabel is a remarkable woman--the smart, tart editor of an Edinburgh philosophical journal, the Review of Applied Ethics, she's a single woman of independent means with a penchant for meddling. On the first page of the novel, she watches a man fall to his death from the upper balcony of a theater. It's a shock of an opening, but while Isabel will spend the rest of the book uncovering the explanation to this death, what's most striking--and beguiling--about this first scene is Isabel's reaction to the Reykjavik Symphony she had come to hear: "Did Reykjavik really have a professional symphony orchestra, she wondered, or were the players amateurs?" Listening to their performance of Stockhausen, she philosophizes: "It was impossible music, really, and it was not something a visiting orchestra should inflict on its hosts." Isabel has to chew everything over, from murder to music. Smith's Africa novels are steeped in a sensual love of the landscape. This book is a mash note to the mind, but place has everything to do with that: Edinburgh "was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect." Isabel is its model citizen, a snoopy philosopher with a sense of humor. She's such good company, it's hard to believe she's fictional. You finish this installment greedily looking forward to more.