Occasionally a book cover grabs me, and it turns out the book is #5 in a 12-book series, or something like that. This has happened three times with one particular author, Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I read one of those, but didn’t feel the urge to keep going. Nothing against the books, but I’m not often drawn to detective novels.
But then, nearly 10 years ago, I discovered his 44 Scotland Street series and read the first 8 books in about 3 weeks (there are now 15, but I’m not ready to jump into that one again). Much like a soap opera, time passed very slowly in these books, with parallel stories of characters connected only by their address in Edinburgh. The best character, a young boy whose mother closely follows Melanie Klein’s ideas about how to nurture a child’s emotional and psychological development. It’s all bunk, but the boy, Bertie, is incredibly resilient. His internal life saves him, and when he manages to escape his mother, his joy and curiosity are wonderful.
On a recent trip, I ran out of things to read, and there, on the NYPL ebooks recommendations page, was Portuguese Irregular Verbs. It’s the 1st book in another McCall Smith series, about Professor Dr. Von Igelfeld and his colleagues at a German linguistics institute. I did some quick research and found there were only 5 books in this series, all available from the NYPL, and all fairly short. In the time it took to download the first 3 books, I was reading, and this series I can absolutely recommend. McCall Smith hilariously parodies academia, German formal address, and the petty jealousies of academics who work in an institute — whose office is largest? whose has the best view? whose is furthest from the noisy men’s room?
Von Igelfeld himself is a wonderful creation. Proud, vain (about his intellect and standing in the linguistics community, not his looks), hapless, as prickly as a hedgehog (igel is German for hedgehog), and happy in the knowledge that he has chosen the best career for himself. Yet he continually finds himself in trouble, usually while at a conference where he is to present a paper. At one point, he accidentally is responsible for a colleague’s pet dog losing 3 legs — cringe-inducing yet incredibly funny. In another one, he ends up president of a country in Latin America that has just survived a revolution. I found myself giggling through all 5 books, and I hope there are more to come.
The third McCall Smith series to get my attention is the Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh and full of philosophical musings with a few minor mysteries that need solutions. I’d been avoiding this series (13 books) for a while, but after reading the Von Igelfeld books, I thought I’d give this one a try.
I’m still not sure if I like the main character, a philosophy journal editor who spends much of her time pondering what she owes to others. In the first two books, her conflicts center around how she should interpret a person’s request for help. If Isabel’s niece, Cat, expresses doubt about the man she’s dating, then Isabel feels morally obligated to let Cat know that the man is involved with another woman. When a heart transplant patient shares his woes with her, she feels morally obligated to track down the donee’s family, despite their request for anonymity.
My main complaint here is that Isabel’s internal struggles struck me as a disguise for her nosy curiosity about others. Of course that gets her into trouble, and there’d be little plot without it. For someone who spends so much of her time thinking about moral philosophy, she has a curious blind spot about her own motivations.
Things change a bit in the 3rd book — she’s less nosy, struggling instead with whether she should allow herself to fall in love with a much younger man.
Yet — and this is why I might read another of these books — the philosophical issues that come up are not just fascinating, but important. McCall Smith uses Isabel to ask questions about how we should treat each other and the world we live in. The one that struck me most forcefully was an interpretation of the Lifeboat Problem, to which Isabel devoted an entire issue of her philosophy journal, satisfied at last that the article writers were wrestling with some real life problems.
I had to pause a moment when I read this. “Real life”? How often does anyone have to figure out who to toss out of a lifeboat?
BUT — as Isabel points out, if you think of the earth as the lifeboat for humankind, then, yes, we are talking about real life problems here, issues that need to be resolved, and quickly.
Final word — Straight-up YES to the Von Igelfeld series, if you like academic comedy. A reluctant MAYBE to the Isabel Dalhousie series, but as I’ve read only 3 of these books, I could be completely wrong.
*A direct quote from several episodes of The Good Place. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE THAT SHOW?
When in Edinburgh for the second time a year or two before the world locked down we walked down Scotland Street (there is no No 44, by the way) and I tried to give the first book a go. I recognised the ambience, the arty shops, the genteel expectations but — and don’t get me wrong, I love the city — the episodic slow pace utterly exhausted me and I regretfully put it down. I decided Portuguese Irregular Verbs would suit me better but, guess what, the interminability of the opening tennis game drained my soul. I wish I could manage such sustained quizzical observations of human character, but it appears I can’t. Sorry.
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No apologies required. McCall Smith’s novels can sometimes move at a glacial pace. Thus the soap opera analogy. I suspect the two series set in Edinburgh are expressions of his love of home and sadness over inevitable change. And he is absolutely guilty of stereotyping, whether Scots, academics, or revolutionaries.
At any rate, after these 3 weeks of racing through 10 of his books, I’m done with him for a good while. If nothing else, it was a restful break from Ulysses.
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I’m wondering if the title is negatively affecting sales: Portuguese Irregular Verbs. My mind goes to the Complete Guide to Conjugating French Verbs. A real page turner. But then I read your content. Crisis averted. Ref: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/2218065916
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