So my office has a shelf of donated books that we exchange with one another, and last week I found myself – unusually and unexpectedly – without a book in my bag, so I picked up Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, having heard good things about The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and being keen to work on my “spies and detectives” category. Let this be a lesson in choosing books: do not choose out of expediency and do not choose out of the vague remembrance that someone once said the author was “okay.” Let it also be a lesson to always have an emergency-back-up-just-in-case-the-bus-breaks-down-or-your-meeting-is-cancelled book.
The Sunday Philosophy Club suffers from boring characters and so an unengaging – and it’s a mystery! – plot. I struggled to care whether Isobel was murdered in the night, was profoundly indifferent to whether the murder was solved because I didn’t get to know the victim and didn’t believe Isobel was all that interested in being a detective in the first place, and was annoyed by Isobel’s niece, Cat, in no small part because she’s named Cat, but more precisely because she “pops round for tea”: I distrust characters who show up without invitation.
It’s true I didn’t care about the mystery because Isobel is boring and her investigatory skills are suspect, but it’s also true that I didn’t care because Isobel doesn’t seem to care. Every chapter she vacillates between absolute commitment (a moral imperative, she thinks) to investigate the crime and a willingness to drop it altogether because it makes people uncomfortable. What made me uncomfortable was her apparent willingness to do all this investigating as if she had license to do so. Rogue detective!
Other point of annoyance:the so-called “philosophical” basis of the novel are Isobel’s occasional musings on the ethics of particular situations. She considers the ethical principles of lying and seems surprised when she receives articles for her journal about lying: is this a coincidence she wonders? Well of course it isn’t. McCall Smith must think we’re thematic dopes for this, and other, heavy handed displays of the moral and thematic questions. Hint for the the thematically uninitiated: the book is about deception!
Finally, I don’t like that the red herring woman is named Minty. I don’t know why. I just don’t.