CAUTION: Snarky Review Ahead. Because Isabel Dalhousie annoyed the heck out of me!
Having enjoyed a number of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books by the same author, my husband and I downloaded Alexander McCall Smith’s The Sunday Afternoon Philosophy Club for a recent drive to Chicago. I’d heard the main character in the series, Isabel Dalhousie, was an academic, and we both thought that might make for an interesting twist on her sleuthing. We started the audiobook somewhere in Central Pennsylvania.
When it finished up as we cruised past Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field, my hubby turned to me and deadpanned, “Well, that’s eight and a half hours of our lives we’ll never get back.” Indeed.
First books in series are difficult – rather than focusing on the mystery at hand, authors often wind up focusing on “setting up” the characters and their relationships. I get that. But in this case the main mystery and the subplot mysteries were very thin – and were solved through serendipity. Isabel Dalhousie didn’t demonstrate any great intellectual prowess or cultural acumen in solving the problems, just a combination of nosiness and dumb luck.
As for her characterization, the whole discussion of her work as a journal editor was off-putting to me. I know a couple of extraordinarily hard-working academic journal editors – at least one of whom is a pretty regular reader of this blog. Most of them do the job against the background of their own considerable work as professors and researchers. It’s a huge undertaking, not the dilettantish endeavor that McCall Smith makes it out to be. Phew — getting a manuscript in the mail. And then actually sending it out to a couple of reviewers. Excellent day’s work – time for a glass of wine and an omelet with the favorite niece’s old beau. Well done.
But what annoyed me most about Isabel Dalhousie went beyond the subpar mystery and the thinness of the characters. Rather than entertaining me, I had the impression that the Scottish journal editor was lecturing me the entire time. Me and everyone else who came within her general vicinity: family, friends, servants, dog walking strangers. I know Alexander McCall Smith is an ethicist. But what about the ethics of badgering your readers? What about the ethics of acting like a smartypants? This isn’t Sophie’s World, for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be a cozy mystery, not a lecture from a Problem of Evil course. I just couldn’t get over the disturbing flashbacks to freshman year at college.
(No wonder her Sunday Philosophy Club never meets. I can just imagine a club member's calculus on a sunny Sunday morning. “What shall I do on this beautiful Edinburgh day? Well, I could amble through the Royal Botanical Garden. Maybe take in the Ceilidh Culture Festival. Or I could go over to Isabel Dalhousie’s and be hit over the head with a Kantian imperative. Hmmm. The Royal Botanical Garden it is then.”)
Narrator Davina Porter does her absolute best with this audiobook, let me underscore that. She executes a wide range of characters skillfully and credibly. I especially liked her characterization of the men in the book – very engaging, and each very different. I just don’t think she had a lot to work with in this case. I would happily listen to her read another title – just not in this series!
After I finished the book I looked at some other reviews, and they were all over the board. Some people love the series, and some just hate it. Count me among the peeved.
SNARK ATTACK OVER!