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The Lost Art of Gratitude: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander McCall Smith
Review by Don Metzler
Pantheon Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780375425141
Date: 22 September 2009 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Lunching at a local Edinburgh eatery, Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the Review of Applied Ethics and occasional amateur sleuth, bumps into investment banker Minty Auchterlonie. It is not a particularly joyful encounter for Isabel. She had first crossed paths with Minty several years earlier, during a scandal involving insider trading, and Isabel has always harbored a strong suspicion that Minty pointed her in the wrong direction in that affair.

But acting as if nothing amiss had ever taken place, Minty invites herself to the table that Isabel had been sharing with her live-in boyfriend Jamie and their 18 month-old son, Charlie. Minty bears in her arms an infant child of her own, her son Roderick, and she invites Isabel and Charlie to attend Roderick's upcoming birthday party. Isabel would prefer to decline the invitation, but good manners and decorum forbid her to do so.

And so it is that the following Sunday Isabel finds herself at Minty's house in a posh neighborhood on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and finds Minty ushering her into the garden for a private word. Minty startles Isabel by bluntly confessing to having engaged in an extramarital affair more than two years earlier. She goes on to explain that Roderick was the issue of that affair, a fact that is unsuspected by Minty's husband. Now the biological father is blackmailing Minty, but not for money. He is blackmailing for the right to have visitation with his son. Knowing that there have been previous occasions when Isabel has been able to discreetly intervene on behalf of people in similar situations, Minty implores Isabel to help her in this. "Visit with the father," she begs Isabel. "Reason with him. Offer to buy him off, if that is what it will take." Reluctantly, Isabel agrees to do what she can to help.

At the same time that she is looking into this unpleasantness, Isabel must also deal with an accusation of plagiarism from her old adversary and rival philosopher, Christopher Dove.

The Lost Art of Gratitude is the sixth installment in Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series. Smith is also the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. Due mostly to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Smith's work is often cataloged with mystery fiction, although his appeal really goes much deeper than that, and frequently to a slightly different audience. The Isabel Dalhousie volumes might be best described as exercises in practical philosophy, with a bit of mild intrigue thrown in as flavoring.

Isabel's internal dialogue, personal philosophical debates that she continually carries on with herself, make up much of the text. A typical Isabel Dalhousie musing, on recalling that the last time she had seen Christopher Dove, he had been wearing green shoes: "Was that a new precaution she would need to add to the list of irrational propositions by which we live our lives, in spite of knowing that they are indefensible: that men who wore green shoes were not to be trusted? Of course that was nonsense perfectly reasonable, trustworthy men wore green shoes, men such as... No, she did not know a single man who wore green boots, apart from Dove."

Smith's novels are enlivened by his rich descriptions of Edinburgh, and the colorful yet delicate brush strokes with which he paints for the reader picture after picture of the surrounding Scottish landscape. The frequently dour skies of Scotland set a thematic tone, but as a backdrop only, not as a sense of overpowering moodiness. Much of the charm in Smith's writing lies in the contrast that he draws between the Scottish weather, and the lively, thoughtful and engaging characters who people his stories.

Smith's books are not directed at fans of the thrill-a-minute, shoot-'em-up brand of mystery, but rather at the reader who prefers to linger over of the rhythmic lilt of the prose, and savor the thoughtful but sometimes contradictory twists and turns of Isabel Dalhousie' s philosophical ramblings. Great stuff.

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