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The Charming Quirks of Others: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander Mccall Smith
Review by Don Metzler
Pantheon Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780307379177
Date: 12 October 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Prue said nothing. She was staring at Isabel in unmistakable fear.

Isabel searched for the right words. She would be gentle. This poor girl was dying.

"Look, I know that you are very fond of Jamie. I understand that. But Jamie and I are together, you know. We're going to get married. He likes you--don't think that he doesn't like you. It's just that... well, he and I are together and that's really all there can be to it. You do understand, don't you?"

Prue seemed to be recovering herself. Her shocked expression was slowly changing; now she was beginning to smile. "Jamie is very fond of me," she said. "Yes, you're right. He is. He's shown it."

The words hit Isabel with an almost physical force. "Shown..."

The smile widened. "Yes. Jamie and I are... well, we're lovers.

Isabel stared at her. She could not speak.

In this seventh entry into the Isabel Dalhousie series, The Charming Quirks of Others, the philosopher and part-time amateur sleuth is faced with more mysteries than she can comfortably tolerate.

A nearby school for boys is interviewing applicants to replace their outgoing Principal, and have narrowed the field to three candidates, each of which, on the surface, seems ultimately suitable. But an anonymous letter has been sent to the chairman of the board of governors. This letter states that one of the candidates has a checkered past that he has not disclosed in the course of his application, and which would cause the school considerable embarrassment were he to be appointed. But the letter does not specify to which of the three applicants it alludes.

So Isabel Dalhousie has been asked to inquire, in her inimitable, subtle and unobtrusive way, into the backgrounds of the three men in question. It is just the sort of quiet investigation that Isabel has become known for in certain circles. And while she does not necessarily relish the idea of another such inquiry, she finds it difficult to say no.

But even as Isabel begins this investigation, she finds that she is distracted by another mystery--a mystery that is ultimately much more important to her on a personal level. It is the question of Jamie, father of Isabel's child, and whether he has engaged in an affair with a young woman who is a member of his musical repertory. Isabel does not want to believe that Jamie is capable of this betrayal, but, after all, how does one ever know for certain exactly what another person might be capable of?

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Alexander McCall Smith presents us with another of his gentle, beautifully written and, yes, charming, treatises on life and human affairs. As is true with Smith's previous novels, this is not so much a mystery as it is a meandering narrative whose chief purpose is to ask the reader to ponder a spate of subtle philosophical and moral issues.

That statement may make it sound as if this book will be heavy reading. Not so. Smith's approach to philosophy and the idea of "applied ethics" is decidedly non-pedantic, at times almost colloquial. His style makes for easy, fun reading, even though the potential bite of a pithy ethical argument always lurks. There are numerous instances throughout the narrative when the reader is presented with a moral question that he may want to pause and ponder, or which he may just as easily decide to skip over, and simply move on to the ensuing paragraphs. With Smith, it is always left to the reader's discretion which philosophical points he wishes to mull, and which he would choose to dismiss as being insufficiently germane. And that is the beauty of Smith's writing. It is, in its own unique way, a sort of interactive fiction. The reader may at every turn choose to explore, or not explore, the various contemplative avenues that are presented.

The Charming Quirks of Others is excellent reading, and highly recommended.

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