Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the page

Scotland generates a new detective with eccentricities all her own

Katrina Wilber

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” to Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot,” British mystery writers have a knack for creating just the sort of detective who keeps things quirky while solving crimes.

Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith first hit the big time in the United States a few years ago with a series of novels about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Botswana. He’s written more than 50 books all told, and he has a new heroine in town now. And this gal’s just getting started.

Set in Scotland, “The Sunday Philosophy Club” follows a somewhat nosy, slightly prim-and-proper woman as she tries to solve a mystery that really should be in the hands of the authorities.

Isabel Dalhousie, the 40-something editor of a philosophical journal, lives alone in her family’s house in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is witness to a tragic event at the concert hall one evening, and that’s when her adventure begins.

As she scours the city in search of answers, we start to learn how Dalhousie works. Her mind wanders from one thought to the next, much like a piece of driftwood glides aimlessly through the sea until it gently lands on the shore. She mentally goes from people falling off cliffs in South America, to apple blossoms, to her mother, to her crossword puzzle in less than three pages.

Whenever Dalhousie talks to herself, which is frequently, the questions are often so ridiculous, the reader isn’t sure whether a laugh or a roll of the eyes is the best response. While thinking of her niece’s ex-boyfriend, for example, she asks, “What more could a girl possibly require than a Scotsman who looked Mediterranean and could sing?” At least that’s not as sinister as when she wonders if one could start an avalanche that would gobble up this same niece’s not-so-desirable boyfriend; nor is it as corny as “If x, then y. But y?”

McCall Smith is a Scotsman who was born in Africa, and the diversity of his background carries over into his writing.

The United States is often called a “melting pot” of races and cultures, but even with a Scottish backdrop, “The Sunday Philosophy Club” contains a conglomeration of cultural items and references, such as the Italian-style delicatessen owned by Dalhousie’s niece and, when it comes to architecture, “slated turrets of French chateaux.”

Dalhousie’s club, which lends its name to the title, is rarely mentioned. It’s like trying to market a French silk pie that’s packaged in a lemon meringue pie box. It just doesn’t make sense.

Much like Dalhousie’s thoughts, “The Sunday Philosophy Club” wanders around for a bit, dawdling here and there, and then tosses out a good piece of information that could be relevant to the case. It’s slow going for a while, and at times it feels like the book will never reach a reasonable conclusion.

It’s the first book in the series, though, so McCall Smith does his best to keep the reader involved while setting up what looks to be a complex plot line. The next ones should be better and juicier, because readers will know all the prerequisite information that tends to drag down the first-born book of a series.

“The Sunday Philosophy Club” is a more sophisticated murder mystery, filled more with art gallery openings and expensive champagne than bloody knives and body bags. This high-society setting of corporate love affairs and whiskey tastings in Edinburgh is a lovely basis for intrigue and deception.

Dalhousie emerges victorious from this first venture into the realm of sleuthing, as so many of these literary gumshoes do. The conclusion is surprising, if not completely satisfying. It’s like being a perfect little angel so Santa will bring you that shiny red bike, but on Christmas morning, you only get another one of those dang “learning-is-fun!” deals.

Dalhousie’s not as quick on the draw as Holmes or Poirot, but with a little practice, it won’t take her long to get there.