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[619] The Sunday Philosophy Club – Alexander McCall Smith


” Cat was aware of the fact that there was no point in upbraiding Isabel: she would never change. There was no reason why she should become involve in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn to them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her. ” (Ch.6, p.69)

Introduced in The Sunday Philosophy Club, first of the series bearing her name, is Isabel Dalhousie, a reticent woman of independent means.As the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, she would seem more at home in a university philosophy department than dealing with the sordid details of murder. In her case, this view of the world, with a seemingly endless supply of potential claims, means that anybody with a problem could arrive on her doorsteps and be taken up, simply because the requirement of moral proximity.

It was a realization that was sudden and complete . . . Good was bad; light was dark; it was as simple as that. A road followed in faith was the road that led nowhere, because it stopped, suddenly and without warning, at a sign which said, unambiguously, Wrong way. And the human mind, jolted out of its assumptions, could either refuse the new reality of switch tracks. (Ch.25, p.229)

Circumstances have her to witness an unfortunate death, a young man’s fall from a symphony hall balcony. Upset by the accident, and compelled by a sense of moral obligation, she decides to investigate the circumstances of Mark Fraser’s death—being as she would have been the last person he saw before his death. The trail winds her through Scottish art society and the world of corporate finance before she arrives in a surprising conclusion. But the progress of Isabel, and thus the book itself, can be ponderous at times. It does not adopt a fast pace but often indulges in deliberation on moral dilemmas that confront her. A journalist is bent to exploiting the victim’s family. Her niece’s boyfriend is two-timing her. She tends to analyze every situation from a philosophical perspective. What ultimately confounds her is once she discovers the truth of the situation, she doesn’t know what to do with that knowledge.

There was a distinction between lying and telling half-truths, but it was a very narrow one. Isabel had herself written a short article on the matter . . . She had argued for a broad interpretation, which imposed a duty to answer questions truthfully, and not to hide facts which could give a different complexion to a matter. (Ch.12, p.127)

The Sunday Philosophy Club is not packed with action, but rather filled with insights into human nature and observations about culture and society. Many readers will find it slow and uneventful but I warm up quickly to Isabel’s personality and narrative style. The mysteries are not the focus of the book but side plot. The real story is about Isabel’s observation of human nature and her regret for the diminishing civility in our society. Smith writes with a formal style punctuated by occasional mischief.

247 pp. Anchor Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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