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The Careful Use of Compliments (Isabel Dalhousie Series #4)

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  • Posted August 25, 2010

    Excellent installment in the series. Hey, where'd that baby come from?

    I love this series - as I love all of McCall Smith's books - and am working my way through it. I really enjoyed this installment too, with one huge exception which bothered me from the very beginning. It may not bother someone who is not reading the rest of the series, but the significant jump and 'lost time' between the end of the last book, when Isabel had just discovered her pregnancy, to the beginning of this one, where she is happily pushing a pram with a 3 month old son, irked me a great deal. So much of the series revolves around her relationship with Jamie and how they relate to each other, and a pregnancy and child would change that in such a major, major way; and yet all that was just left out of the picture. I felt incomplete. Like a whole book had been entirely left out and I was struggling to pick up the pieces. Will Jamie be a good father? Well WHO KNOWS? Was he buying pickles and ice cream 6 months ago? Did he rub her back during contractions? I don't know, because you left that part out!!! Bah, it's silly I know, but it drove me batty.
    ANYWAY... the book is very like the others in style, which is an excellent thing! A nicely constructed mystery is presented, worked through in parts, and an ending with perhaps a bit of surprise in it is tied up at the end. Very Christie-like. I adore the characters, I love the descriptions of Edinburgh and Jura and the details of relationships between people. Mr McCall Smith is very gifted in noting those little details of daily life we don't always recognize and then when we read them we think yes! I think that too! It's a great read.

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  • Posted June 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Mystery Without Mayhem

    A "mystery" of a somewhat unusual sort, this one demonstrates that you don't need murder and mayhem to keep the "detective" in the game. Isabel Dalhousie is a Scottish lady in her early forties with a tidy inheritance and no need to work for a living, but does anyway as editor of a philosophy review with a smallish circulation. She doesn't earn much but doesn't need to, while it enables her to pursue her true passion: moral philosophy. How to live a good life and what that entails. But Ms. Dalhousie, with a wide circle of friends, and family members, doesn't stand apart from the world she is endlessly contemplating.

    As the book opens we learn Isabel's a recent mother, albeit unwed, though neither she nor her circle think there's anything wrong with that. Her lover, a musician, is a good deal younger than she and the former paramour of her niece. Greatly attached to his new son by Isabel, he is quite prepared to make an "honest woman" of his child's mother and loves Isabel, though with a level of passion more suited to a thoughtful and sensitive artiste than an ardent youth. But Isabel is having none of it . . . for now anyway.

    On the other hand their relationship has brought its own complications since the boyfriend's former lover, Cat, Isabel's headstrong niece, resents her aunt's "acquisition" of her cast-off lover. Into this complex of entanglements comes a mystery of sorts when Isabel, the ever thoughtful and self-doubting philosophical thinker, decides to buy a newly discovered painting by a deceased Scottish artist. The painting appears genuine except for some small oddities though Isabel is outbid at auction by an unknown person who departs hastily before she can identify him.

    Resolved to make the best of her loss, Isabel moves on with her life and is soon embroiled in the political shenanigans of academia. Trying to sort out her own feelings and choices under the pressure of the professoriate, Isabel is abruptly surprised to learn certain new facts about the mysterious painting. Despite the urgings of her young lover to stay out of others' affairs, the philosophically incautious Isabel can't resist the bait of the mysterious painting and the coincidences that keep coming up concerning it, plunging into a fray consisting, in equal measure, of certain mysterious persons and a long dead painter whose future seemed bright when he suddenly disappeared off the Scottish coast in what might have been an accident, suicide . . . or something worse.

    The real mystery is less the resolution of the painter's strange disappearance than how Isabel will resolve her many social entanglements without causing more harm than good. Along the way, we're treated to a lovingly traced Scottish countryside and it's rugged western coast along with the modern Euro-obsession with one's place in society via an almost obsessive concern for one's carbon footprint. Miss Dalhousie is an intriguing detective but she's no Philip Marlow nor even a Miss Marple. On the other hand, we're long overdue for the philosopher qua detective and Smith has done it with skill and verve. The well-known 20th century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was famously partial to mysteries when he wasn't contemplating more weighty matters. He'd have liked Dalhousie had he lived long enough to read about her.

    Stuart W. Mirsky, author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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