The Charming Quirks of Others (Isabel Dalhousie Series #7) [NOOK Book]


The seventh installment in the beloved chronicles of Isabel Dalhousie finds our inquisitive heroine facing new intellectual challenges, but buoyed by her recent engagement to the nearly perfect Jamie.

After having dinner with Jamie, Isabel is approached by a pair of old friends, asking her to help them in a rather tricky situation. A successor is being sought for the headmaster position at their alma mater. The board has four final candidates....
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The Charming Quirks of Others (Isabel Dalhousie Series #7)

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The seventh installment in the beloved chronicles of Isabel Dalhousie finds our inquisitive heroine facing new intellectual challenges, but buoyed by her recent engagement to the nearly perfect Jamie.

After having dinner with Jamie, Isabel is approached by a pair of old friends, asking her to help them in a rather tricky situation. A successor is being sought for the headmaster position at their alma mater. The board has four final candidates. They received an anonymous letter, however, alleging that one of them has a very serious skeleton in their closet. Could Isabel discreetly look into it? The answer is of course, yes. Although for Isabel the whole investigation is even more revealing: she finds herself attracted to one of the candidates, which complicates her life immeasurably because she is engaged to Jamie, the father of her young son.

Dealing with issues of charity, forgiveness and humility, Isabel's most recent investigation is a revealing look at the need we all have to keep a little bit of ourselves hidden.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Isabel, moral philosopher and amateur detective, living in McCall Smith’s Edenic Edinburgh, has plenty of time between investigations to ponder the pettiness of her neighbors and engage in self-introspection. The case demanding her expertise requires her to probe into the backgrounds of three candidates for a headmaster’s job at a local boys’ school, instigated by a mysterious anonymous letter. But Isabel’s investigations are secondary to her quotidian preoccupations. The series is charmingly narrated by Davina Porter, who has locked in her portrayals of Isabel, Jamie, and their son, Charlie. As usual, Porter settles on just the right tone for every newcomer. She provides McCall Smith fans with another dead-on performance worth lingering over. A Pantheon hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 16). (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"A seriously charming mix of romance and revelation." --Parade Magazine

“McCall Smith continues to capture the best of traditional British mysteries.” —Sacramento Book Review

“Like Mma Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Isabel has the gift of an expansive, forgiving humanity which embraces the world it inhabits.” —The Scotsman
“Lighthearted . . . spiced by [McCall Smith’s] own subtle humor.” —The Washington Times

“McCall Smith’s heroes are among the most endearing in contemporary fiction . . . because they're so humble in their quest for goodness.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Isabel is a force to be reckoned with.” —USA Today
“Charmingly told. . . . Its graceful prose shines, and Isabel’s interior monologues—meditations on a variety of moral questions—are bemused, intelligent and entertaining.” —The Seattle Times
“Endearing. . . . Offers tantalizing glimpses of Edinburgh’s complex character and a nice, long look into the beautiful mind of a thinking woman.” —The New York Times Book Review
“In Mma Ramotswe, [McCall Smith] minted one of the most memorable heroines in any modern fiction. Now, with the creation of Isabel Dalhousie, he’s done it again. . . . She’s such good company, it’s hard to believe she’s fictional. You finish [one] installment greedily looking forward to more.” —Newsweek

Kirkus Reviews

Edinburgh moral philosopher Isabel Dalhousie's seventh round of adventures among ethical conundrums (The Lost Art of Gratitude, 2009, etc.) marks her finest hour to date.

Harold Slade, principal of the Bishop Forbes School, is leaving for a post in Singapore, and the school's board of governors, headed by retired businessman Alex Mackinlay, has prepared a short list of three possible replacements: mountain-climbing enthusiast John Fraser, ambitious math teacher Gordon Leafers and Tom Simpson, who Mackinlay thinks none too bright. It's all business as usual until someone complicates the process by writing an anonymous letter warning that one of the three finalists harbors a secret that would seriously embarrass the school if he were appointed. What to do? Naturally, Mackinlay's wife Jillian takes it upon herself to enlist the help of Isabel, a casual acquaintance she met at a dinner party. It's an inspired choice, because in addition to her gift for moral clarity and fierce integrity, Isabel turns out to have surprisingly intimate connections to two of the candidates. Along the way, she'll have to deal with her fiancé Jamie's temptation by dying cellist Prue McKay, her niece Cat's latest problematic boyfriend, her plan to bid on a Raeburn canvas picturing a long-dead relative and, of course, the latest schemes of Professors Robert Lettuce and Christopher Dove, the banes of Isabel's journal, the Review of Applied Ethics. This time, however, the mystery of the anonymous letter remains central until Isabel resolves it in an uncommonly satisfying way.

A powerful demonstration of Smith's ability to dramatize the ways everyday situations spawn the ethical dilemmas that keep philosophers in business.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307379450
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/12/2010
  • Series: Isabel Dalhousie Series, #7
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 124,194
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of Medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He lives in Scotland.

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Read an Excerpt

THE NEXT DAY was a working day for Isabel. As editor—and now owner—of the Review of Applied Ethics, she could determine her own working patterns, but only to an extent. The journal was quarterly, which might have led outsiders to think that Isabel’s job could hardly be onerous. Such outsiders would be wrong—as outsiders usually are about most things. Although three months intervened between the appearance of each issue of the journal, those three months were regulated by a series of chores that were as regular as the tides, and as unforgiving. Papers had to be sent out for review and, if accepted for publication, edited. The professors of philosophy who wrote these papers were, as Isabel had discovered, only human; they made mistakes in their grammar—egregious mis­takes in some cases even if in others only minor solecisms. She corrected most of these, trying not to seem too pedantic in the process. She allowed the collective plural: If you wish to reform a person, you should tell them—Isabel allowed the them because there were those who objected strongly to gendered pronouns. So you could not tell him in such circumstances, but would have to tell him or her, which became ungainly and awkward, and sounded like the punctilious language of the legal draughtsman. She also allowed infinitives to be split, which they were with great regularity, because that rule was now almost universally ignored and its authority, anyway, was questionable. Who established that precept, anyway? Why not split an infinitive if one wanted to? The sense was as easily understood whether or not the infinitive was sundered apart or left inviolate.
But it was not just the editing of papers that took up her time. An important part of each issue was the review section, where four or five recent books in the field of ethics were reviewed at some length, and a few others, less favoured, were given brief notices. Then there was a short column headed Books Received, which listed other books that had been sent by publishers and were not going to be given a review. It was an ignominious fate for a book, but it was better than nothing. At least the journal acknowledged the fact that the book had been published, which was perhaps as much as some authors could hope for. Some books, even less favoured, got not even that; they fell leaden from the presses, unread, unremarked upon by anyone. Yet somewhere, behind those unreadable tomes, there was an author, the proud parent of that particular book, for whom it might even be the crowning achievement of a career; and all that happened on publication was silence, a profound and unfathomable silence.
That morning, four large padded envelopes were sitting on Isabel’s desk in her large Victorian house in Merchiston. She closed the study door behind her, and looked at her desk. The four packages were clearly books—they had that look to them— and several other envelopes which her housekeeper, Grace, had retrieved from the floor of the hall were just as evidently papers submitted for publication. It would take her until lunchtime to deal with these, she decided; Jamie had a free morning— no bassoon pupils and no rehearsals—which meant that he could devote his time to his son. They were going to Blackford Pond, where the ducks were a source of infinite fascination to Charlie. Then they would go somewhere else, he said, but he had yet to decide where. “Charlie will have views,” he said. “He’ll tell me.”
Charlie now spoke quite well, in primitive sentences with a subject—as often as not himself—and a verb, usually in the present tense but occasionally in the past. His past tense, Isabel had noticed, had a special ring to it. “It is a special past tense he uses,” she said to Jamie. “It is the past regretful. The past regretful is used to express regret over what has happened. All gone is a past regretful, as is Ducks eaten all bread.” He still talked about olives, of course; olive had been his first word, and his appetite for olives was as strong as ever. Olives nice, he had said to Isabel the previous day, and she, too, thought that they were nice. They had then looked at one another, Charlie staring at his mother with the intense gaze of childhood. She had waited for him to say something more, but he had not. They had said everything there was to say about olives, it seemed, and so she bent forward and kissed him lightly on his forehead.
She thought of that now as she surveyed her desk. She sighed; she was a mother, but she was also an editor, and a philosopher, and she had to work. Settling herself at her desk, she opened the first of the book parcels. Two books tumbled out, accompanied by a compliments slip on which a careless hand had scribbled For favour of a review. Underneath was the date of publication and a request that no review should appear before then. That, thought Isabel, was easily enough complied with, given that journal reviews were sometimes published as much as two years after publication. She herself had reviewed a book eighteen months after publication and had only discovered after her review had been published that the author had died six months previously. It was not a good book, and in her review she had written that she felt that the author’s next book on the subject would be much better. Worse than that, she had com­mented on a certain lifelessness in the prose. Well, he was dead; perhaps he was dying when he wrote the book. She shuddered at the memory. She had tried to be charitable, but she had not been charitable enough. Remember that, she said to herself; remember that in your dealings with others—they may be dying.
The two books looked interesting enough. One was on the moral implications of being a twin; the second was on the notion of fairness in economic judgements. She was not greatly excited by the economics book—that would be received, she thought . . . unless the author was dying, of course. She turned to the back flap and looked at the photograph of the author. He looked young, she decided, and healthy enough to write another book, which might get a full review. He could be placed in the received pile without risk of . . . she was about to say injus­tice to herself, when she realised she was being unjust. Just because she was not particularly interested in discussions of fairness in economics, that did not mean that others would not be. No, she would promote the book to the Brief Notice section. That was fair. As for the twins book, on opening it, she saw this sentence: “Because moral obligation comes with close­ness, there is a case for saying that the twin owes a greater duty to his or her twin than is owed by non-twins to their siblings.” She frowned. Why? She flicked through several pages and read, at random, “Of the many dilemmas confronting the twin, a par­ticularly demanding one is the decision whether or not to tell one’s twin of a medical diagnosis received. If one twin is diag­nosed with a genetic disease, for example a form of cancer in which there is a strong familial element, then the other twin should know.” That, said Isabel to herself, is not a dilemma. You tell.
The twins book would have to be reviewed, and it occurred to Isabel that it would be interesting to have it reviewed by somebody who was a twin. But the twin would have to be a philosopher, and she was not sure if she knew any person answering that description. The author, perhaps, might know; she would write to him and ask him. Of course she could not commit herself to any name that he suggested—authors could not choose their reviewers—but it would be a start.
She opened the next parcel and extracted from it a slender book bound in blue. Tucked into it was a folded letter, which she took out and opened. She saw the heading of the notepaper first and caught her breath. Then she read it.
The letter came from Professor Lettuce, the previous chair­man of the Review’s editorial board and friend and collaborator of Professor Christopher Dove, the closest thing to an enemy that Isabel was aware of possessing. She had not chosen Dove as an enemy—he had assumed that role himself, and had revealed a ruthless streak in the process. He had recently accused Isabel of publishing a plagiarised article, but had been seen off. Lettuce had initially backed him, but had been per­suaded by Isabel to change his ways—“I have been a foolish Lettuce” was his memorable remark on that occasion. Now it appeared that Dove and Lettuce were friends again, because here was Lettuce sending Isabel a new book by Dove and offer­ing to review it.

Dear Isabel [wrote Lettuce],

I hope that this finds you well and that the Review is thriving in your capable hands. Our mutual friend [our mutual friend, Isabel muttered sotto voce] Chris Dove [Chris!] has, as you may know, written a rather interest­ing new book. I’m not sure if the publishers have sent you a copy—perhaps they have—but at the risk of bur­dening you with numerous copies, here is another one. I thought I might offer to review it for you, and have started penning a few thoughts, if that’s all right with you. I’ll do about two thousand words because I think that this is a work that deserves a decent discussion. I’m a bit pressed at the moment—this wretched research assessment business is such a burden—and Dolly [Dolly Lettuce, his wife, thought Isabel. Poor woman. Dolly!] is in the middle of making redecoration plans for our house at Wimbledon, so all is rather fraught on the domestic front—but I should be able to get it done by the end of the month and will send it along then.
Thanks so much for agreeing to this, and please—please—do get in touch with me when you wrench yourself away from the provinces and come to London.
Lunch will be on me.
All best,
Robert Lettuce
Isabel felt the discomfort of being outraged but not being sure of which cause of her outrage was the more significant. Lettuce had casually insulted Scotland—which was not a province of England, but a country—and an old one at that— within a union with England. Nothing could be more calculated to annoy a Scotswoman, and Lettuce should have known that. But that was merely a matter of personal pride, which Isabel could swallow easily enough; it was more difficult for her to deal with the breathtaking arrogance of his assumption that he could write a review without being asked. He thanked her for agreeing to publish his review—well, she had not agreed and felt highly inclined not to do so, and she would not be bought off with a breezy invitation to lunch in London.
She would write to Lettuce, she decided, and thank him for offering to review Dove’s book, but would say that she must— very reluctantly—decline his offer because . . . She thought of reasons. It would be tempting to say that it was because Dove’s book was not of sufficient interest to merit a review—that was very tempting. Or she might say that she had decided to review the book herself. That was perhaps even more tempting, because it would give her the chance to cast Dove’s book into the outer darkness that it undoubtedly deserved. “This slight contribution to the literature,” she might write, “is unlikely to find many readers.” Or, “An effort to elucidate a difficult topic— courageous, yes, but unfortunately a failure.”
She stopped herself. Such thoughts, she told herself, were crude fantasies of revenge. Dove had plotted against her and would have succeeded in hounding her out of her job had she not had the resources to buy the Review from under his nose, and then get rid not only of him but also of Lettuce, who had been his co-conspirator. Dove had planned her removal, but that did not mean that she should stoop to his level and seek revenge by writing a critical review of his book. That would be quite wrong.
She looked up at the ceiling. One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you became aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savour the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fantasising. Well might St. Augustine have said Make me chaste, but not just yet; that was how Isabel felt. And yet she could not; she could not let herself experience the pleasure of getting her own back on Dove because it was, quite simply, always wrong to get one’s own back on another. It was her duty to forgive Dove and, if one were to be really serious about it, to go further than that and to love him. Hate the acts of Doves, not Doves themselves, she muttered; they said that about sin, did they not? Hate the sin, not the sinner.
She put aside Lettuce’s letter and picked up Dove’s book. She read the title, Freedom and Choice: The Limits of Responsi­bility in a Role-Fixated World. She wrinkled her nose. Was the world really role-fixated? Freedom of choice, though, was a sub­ject in which she was interested, and indeed she had written on the subject when she was still a graduate research fellow. Turn­ing to the end of the book, she found an annotated bibliography. She could see that Dove had been assiduous in his marshalling of the literature, and there, yes, there were her two papers on this subject. And after the first of these—a paper that had been published in the Journal of Philosophy, and which had been fairly widely cited—was Dove’s annotation. He had used only one word: Unreliable. 

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. In an Entertainment Weekly interview Alexander McCall Smith was asked which fictional character he most identifies with, and he answered, “Isabel Dalhousie and I agree on just about everything. She seems to think as I do.” Which one of his characters do you most identify or agree with?

2. One of the early reviews called The Charming Quirks of Others “a powerful demonstration of McCall Smith’s ability to dramatize the ways everyday situations spawn the ethical dilemmas that keep philosophers in business.” (Kirkus Reviews)  Describe some of the dilemmas in the book and discuss what you would have done in Isabel’s or another character’s place.

3. The novel opens with Isabel and Guy Peploe discussing gossip. How does this conversation allude to later events in the book? What is your feeling on gossip? Is it harmless and/or pointless? Does it have real purpose in social settings?

4. Do you agree with Isabel when she considers that “people were only too ready to believe things that were manifestly untrue” and that people are happy to hear others cast in a negative light? Do you think we all do this despite our better judgment?

5. The author discusses the dilemma of a working mother in this novel. “I could spend all my time with Charlie, which is what I would love to do. But would I be any happier? And would it make any difference to Charlie?” Discuss this, and how child rearing is extremely important for a mother, but so is working and feeling responsible for something outside the home. If you have children, did you go to work while raising them or did you stay home, and how did you come to your decision to do one or the other?

6. Isabel often acts on her intuition; sometimes it leads her to the truth, sometimes not. What is your opinion about acting with your gut, or on simple intuition? Discuss some situations where your intuition was correct, and some where it was not.

7. Discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.

8. What do you think the author is saying about different kinds of love in the novel (loving your children, your partner, your friends, all of humanity)?

9. What do you make of the title? If we look at others faults as charming or positive, would it be easier to accept or put up with them? And if we openly accepted our own faults, would it be easier to accept others faults? What does Isabel think?

10. Isabel is jealous of Jamie and his friendship with a fellow musician. How does she overcome her jealousy? What are other ways people overcome jealousy? Are there situations where one should simply accept your jealousy and address it head on?

11. Discuss the importance of songs and poetry in this and in all of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels. What role does music and poetry play in the novels and in life?

12. Who are some of the poets that Alexander McCall Smith often quotes in his novels, especially in this Isabel Dalhousie series? Who are some of your favorite poets?

13. Another important cultural element in Isabel’s life, in addition to music and poetry, is art. Various artists are mentioned and this novel focuses on a particular piece of art by Scottish painter Raeburn. How is art tied to Isabel’s life and this novel? Why is Isabel generous with this particular painting of her ancestor?

14. How do art and music help Isabel deal with the ethical issues that pop up in the novels and with the detective work she does “helping” others?

15. Isabel wishes for happiness for Harold Slade, whom she really does not care for and who is a bit of a bully, and she states, “Although it’s harder to love, it’s always better.” Do you agree? Discuss a situation you’ve been in where this worked for you.

16. Do you agree with the final phrase of the book, “Loving anything with all your heart always brings about understanding, in time.” How does this sentence epitomize or summarize the novel for you?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 34 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 12, 2011

    Smith doesn't disappoint, yet again!

    I was originally turned on to the Isabel Dalhousie series after falling in love with Precious Ramotswe. To my delight, I found Isabel to be just as loveable and meaningful a character to me as Precious. I have eagerly awaited eery book out in the series and this was no exception.

    Smith comes through again in installment #7 with his instantly recognizeable prose. Many of the conflicts in this novel are the same ones faced over and over by Isabel and friends before: Isabel finds herself drawn into helping people in the community solve problems by doing a little detective work, almost against her better judgement. Isabel struggles with her own insecurties about her relationship with Jamie, despite his obvious affection for her and Charlie. Cat struggles to find a semi-respectable, stable boyfriend. Jamie struggles to do the right thing as always. Isabel comes up, again, against Lettuce and Dove and has to decide the morally correct way to handle herself with them. So the themes are quite familiar in this work, even if the problems themselves have new details. As is often the case for me with Smith's mysteries, I was taken completely by surprise by the solution to the problem Isabel is working on, which leaves one with a pleasant feeling of completion at the end. Essentially this novel will be no surprise to readers of the other 6 issues in the series. However, that doesn't in any way make it disposable; it is quite a good read and spending a day immersed in it is delightful.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2011

    Good read

    I love this series because the books are fun and well-written. Very interesting to read a series that takes place in Scottland (or Bostwana!) I enjoy reading about Isabel's moral dilemnas as well as her forays into detection among her friends and neighbors. At times sad and at others quite amusing, this series of books is always highly entertaining!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 29, 2012

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  • Posted October 7, 2011

    Highly recommend- quiet, yet powerful.

    Under the guise of "charm", Alexander McCall Smith once again teaches us a profound lesson on the nature of love and the human condition.

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  • Posted November 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Abbotsford: "the greatest literary shrine in Scotland - Sir Walter Scott's house."

    Alexander McCall Smith's newest Isabel Dalhousie novel is called THE CHARMING QUIRKS OF OTHERS. Smith writes much either dully or preciously, or both. Striking is his inability to paint memorable word pictures of streets, buildings and backdrops of Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland. The novel is full, by contrast, of allusions to writers, Bert Brecht, James Hogg and others. But where is the dirt and bustle of "auld reekie," the flesh and blood Edinburgh of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson? Don't just allude to them, Smith! Write like them! *** Isabel Dalhousie is a middle-aged mother of a nearly two-year old illegitimate son named Charlie. Charlie's father is Isabel's live-in fiance, Jamie. Father-son names evoke Stuart monarchs of old. Evocation or writers and association of ideas propel every conversation that professional moral philosopher Dalhousie has. For a philosopher, Isabel is remarkably unsure of her ethical principles, but by novel's end, is willing to overlook or minimize every moral failing of the dozen or two characters she interacts with. *** What interaction? The plot, such as it is, has Isabel saying yes (as she always does) to a request for help. It comes from Jillian Mackinlay a virtual stranger. She asks Isabel to investigate the backgrounds of three men on a short-list (Broad Scots "short-leet") to be named headmaster of nearby Bishop Forbes School, for boys 8 - 18. Isabel is to report her findings and recommendations to Alex Mackinlay, Jillian's powerful husband, who sits on many boards. *** The research takes little of Dalhousie's time, as coincidence after coincidence dumps facts in her lap to flesh out dossiers given her by Jillian. But all is not plot. Fans of Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) may turn eagerly to Chapter 11, "A Writer's House" anticipating a lovingly detailed tour of Abbotsford, his architecturally world-famous "Conundrum Castle" on the river Tweed. Novel's heroine Dalhousie has driven there an hour southeast of Edinburgh for a fund raiser organized by Alex Mackinlay and to discuss her short-list research with Jilian Mackinlay. Every reference, however, to Abbotsford is via literary allusions which knowing readers are assumed to tweak to: examples: -- When a waiter says that he does not work for the estate but is a shepherd, Isabel muttes "An Ettrick Shepherd." To a puzzled Jillian, Isabel simply says "James Hogg ... The Ettrick Shepherd. The essayist." -- Jillian says that Abbotsford is wonderful, "the greatest literary shrine in Scotland." Isabel loves Scott but doubts that people make time anymore to read his great historical novels. -- Jillian: yet just think, this house is where Scott actually wrote. "We can take a look at his writing room ... . His desk is still there." -- At dinner Isabel wonders if a fast-paced electronic generation will revive Walter Scott, "whose stories could be weighed in pounds." -- Later, driving back through "Scott country" to Edinburgh, Isabel barely notices the moonlit scenery. But "she imagined him at Abbotsford looking out of his library window, at the world he peopled with his characters, a world of desperate doings and heroic quests." *** If you want Edinburgh and Scotland to come alive, read Scott! Smith does the impossible: he makes both mere flat and boring backdrops to a play full of conditioned-reflex humans. -OOO-

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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