Thursday, October 6, 2011

THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by Alexander McCall Smith

When I was in high school, Frito-Lay introduced a slogan that became famous: "Betcha can't eat just one." I took that as a challenge, an easy bet to win since I didn't care for Fritos.

However, I cannot - cannot - read just one book a year by Alexander McCall Smith, and I'm so glad I don't have to. This year saw the release (in the U.S., which tends to lag) of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, 12) and The Dog Who Came In from the Cold (Corduroy Mansions Series, 2). Today my public library, bless them, ordered The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (Isabel Dalhousie Series, 8), slated for December.

I have the first hold on the first copy received.

The Corduroy Mansions series, like the earlier and ongoing (in the U.K.) 44 Scotland Street Series, are serial novels à la Dickens, but delivered at a far more frenetic pace. The Dog Who Came In from the Cold's 78 very short chapters began life as an online novel  (you can read its sequel here, at the Telegraph website) and were then turned into a book. As you read, you get the feeling that McCall Smith has no idea what his characters are going to do next, and the book has nothing resembling a linear plot. It doesn't matter. Surprises are good. And you know everything will more or less come together by the last page.

Which is amazing, considering all the interwoven stories centering on Corduroy Mansions, a yet-to-be-rehabbed apartment building in Pimlico, central London.

  • Should William French, wine merchant, allow MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to use his Pimlico terrier ("an unusual breed obtained through the judicious crossing of an Airedale with a Border Collie, and perhaps just a touch of something else about which the breeders themselves were now hazy"), Freddie de la Hay, as a spy?
  • Can Caroline and James, art history students, find happiness without germs?
  • Will Dee, owner of the Pimlico Vitamin and Supplement Agency and proponent of colonic irrigation, lose all her money if she invests in an attractive marketing scheme?
  • Can Barbara Ragg and Rupert Porter, literary agents, resolve their dispute over an inherited apartment?
  • Can Berthea Snark, psychiatrist, stop her loony brother Terence Moongrove from making a very foolish decision?
  • Is an abominable snowman really shopping at Fortnum and Mason?
If it sounds confusing, it isn't. McCall Smith somehow keeps you anchored, and by the time quite a few of the characters gather at William's place for a party, you love them all - just as McCall Smith does - and maybe you even feel a little more love for some of your odder family members.
[William] looked down at Freddie de la Hay, who was lying in a corner, one eye open, watching the human comedy, or that small part of it that was playing out in the room. Dear Freddie, loyal Freddie; for whom there were no great existential questions because he knew at all times, and in all places, what he had to do - which was to do William's bidding and make him happy. That was Freddie's world-view, his Weltanschauung, it it was as good as any world-view, thought William. We had to love somebody, and we had to want the best for that person. Freddie knew as much because it was in his nature to do so.
Part of the delight of reading McCall Smith, who is a retired bioethicist, is that he scatters such observations throughout his stories: his characters are constantly pondering the human condition. But I don't read these books for their ethical weight. I read them because the characters are wildly eccentric and lovable, because the situations they get into are hilariously improbable, and because - at the end of a tiring day - McCall Smith makes me smile.

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