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The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (Isabel Dalhousie Series #5)

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The fifth novel in New York Times best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith's beloved Isabel Dalhousie series has the ethical problem solver from Edinburgh finding comforts in unlikely places.

"[McCall Smith's] series, featuring Scottish American moral philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, is a charmer … and steadily growing in popularity."—Booklist

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The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (Isabel Dalhousie Series #5)

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The fifth novel in New York Times best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith's beloved Isabel Dalhousie series has the ethical problem solver from Edinburgh finding comforts in unlikely places.

"[McCall Smith's] series, featuring Scottish American moral philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, is a charmer … and steadily growing in popularity."—Booklist

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
At the Edinburgh dinner party, guests strain to listen as the conversation turns to the recent forced resignation of a prominent medical research director. Isabel Dalhousie becomes interested when she overhears a friend of the professor insist that his former colleague could not be involved with the pharmaceutical scandal that had led to his dismissal. Unable to ignore this sticky business, our intrepid philosopher-sleuth begins to investigate. Meanwhile, all is not quiet on the home front: Jamie's friendship with a winsome American composer is beginning to worry Isabel, and as the esteemed editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, she must confront a major ethical dilemma of her own. An exceptionally eventful episode of another unconventional series by the author of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
Publishers Weekly

In narrating the fifth installment of this series, Davina Porter has so become the voice of the charmingly ethical Isabel Dalhousie that it is hard to imagine anyone else ever taking her place. The new novel gives Porter an opportunity to fill out Isabel's character; despite her best intentions, Isabel's voice occasionally rises with indignation or jealousy that is at odds with her belief system. A slightly venomous tone seeps into Isabel's voice as she contemplates an opportunity to humiliate her nemesis, Professor Dove. Toward the end of the novel, Porter performs a small tour de force in a ricocheting argument between Isabel and her niece. The two ping-pong their views without the slightest hesitation or slip on Porter's part. Porter's skillful performance will make listeners eager for the next installment. A Pantheon hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Even more than her first four adventures, Isabel Dalhousie's fifth is a record of complications that constantly challenge her ethical faculties while charmingly failing to disturb her tranquility. What happens when Professor Christopher Dove, who schemed unsuccessfully in The Careful Use of Compliments (2007) to replace Isabel as editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, sends her an article on the venerable Trolley Problem? After due thought, Isabel sends it out to two readers, just as she would a contribution by anyone else. What happens when her niece Cat takes a holiday in Sri Lanka with her current lover? Isabel manages Cat's delicatessen in her absence, of course. When Cat's assistant Eddie, a damaged boy, asks Isabel for money, she agrees to give it, come what may in the way of second thoughts. And when she suspects that American composer Nick Smart is interested in more than musical collaboration with Jamie, Cat's ex-lover and the father of Isabel's son Charlie, she cycles through one emotional reaction after another before the unsurprising resolution. In the thread most closely approximating an orthodox mystery, Stella Moncrieff pleads with Isabel to exonerate her husband, a physician in disgrace for allegedly altering information on the clinical trials of a new anti-MRSA drug and causing a man's death. Isabel is so perturbed that she wonders at one point if she's actually being threatened. Yet all ends quietly. Another insubstantial yet deeply rooted paean to Isabel's status as an "intermeddler" whose reasoning begins where other literary sleuths' ends.
From the Publisher
"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

"Delightful... McCall Smith's talent for dialogue is matched only by his gift for characterization."
--Chicago Tribune

"Full of his insightful but gentle examinations of human nature... Paints [a] rich portrait of Edinburgh."
--Rocky Mountain News

"Alexander McCall Smith's writing is downright addictive."
--The Grand Rapids Press

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781436141369
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 9/23/2008
  • Series: Isabel Dalhousie Series , #5
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged to 7 CDs, 7.75 hours
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the huge international phenomenon The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency 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.

From the Hardcover edition.


Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and went to school in Bulawayo, near the Botswana border. Although he moved to Scotland to attend college and eventually settled in Edinburgh, he always felt drawn to southern Africa and taught law for a while at the University of Botswana. He has written a book on the criminal law of Botswana, and among his successful children's books is a collection of African folk tales, Children of Wax.

Eventually, Smith had an urge to write a novel about a woman who would embody the qualities he admired in the people of Botswana, and the result, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, was a surprise hit, receiving two special Booker citations and a place on the Times Literary Supplement's International Books of the Year and the Millennium list. "The author's prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision," Anthony Daniels wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. "His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswanan landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven't read anything with such unalloyed pleasure for a long time."

Despite the book's success in the U.K., American publishers were slow to take an interest, and by the time The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was picked up by Pantheon Books, Smith had already written two sequels. The books went from underground hits to national phenomena in the United States, spawning fan clubs and inspiring celebratory reviews. Smith is also the author of a detective series featuring the insatiably curious philosopher Isabel Dalhousie and the 44 Scotland Street novels, which present a witty portrait of Edinburgh society

In an interview on the publisher's web site, Smith says he thinks the country of Botswana "particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about -- respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa -- in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity."

Good To Know

As a professor at Edinburgh Law School, Smith specializes in criminal law and medical law, and has written about the legal and ethical aspects of euthanasia, medical research, and medical practice.

When he isn't writing books or teaching, Smith finds time to play the bassoon in the candidly named amateur ensemble he co-founded, The Really Terrible Orchestra.

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Read an Excerpt

The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday
An Isabel Dalhousie Novel

By Alexander McCall Smith
Random House Large Print
Copyright © 2008

Alexander McCall Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780739328125

What made Isabel Dalhousie think about chance? It was one of those curious coincidences—an inconsequential one—as when we turn the corner and find ourselves face-to-face with the person we’ve just been thinking about. Or when we answer the telephone and hear at the other end the voice of the friend we had been about to call. These things make us believe either in telepathy—for which there is as little hard evidence as there is, alas, for the existence of Santa Claus—or in pure chance, which we flatter ourselves into thinking plays a small role in our lives. Yet chance, Isabel thought, determines much of what happens to us, from the original birth lottery onwards. We like to think that we plan what happens to us, but it is chance, surely, that lies behind so many of the great events of our lives—the meeting with the person with whom we are destined to spend the rest of our days, the receiving of a piece of advice which influences our choice of career, the spotting of a particular house for sale; all of these may be down to pure chance, and yet they govern how our lives work out and how happy—or unhappy—we are going to be.

It happened when she was walking with Jamie across the Meadows, the large, tree-lined park that divides South Edinburgh from the Old Town.Jamie was her . . . What was he? Her lover—her younger lover—her boyfriend; the father of her child. She was reluctant to use the word partner because it has associations of impermanence and business arrangements. Jamie was most definitely not a business arrangement; he was her north, her south, to quote Auden, whom she had recently decided she would quote less frequently. But even in the making of that resolution, she had found a line from Auden that seemed to express it all, and had given up on that ambition. And why, she asked herself, should one not quote those who saw the world more clearly than one did oneself?

Her north, her south; well, now they were walking north, on one of those prolonged Scottish summer evenings when it never really gets dark, and when one might forget just how far from south one really is. The fine weather had brought people out onto the grass; a group of young men, bare-chested in the unaccustomed warmth, were playing a game of football, discarded tee-shirts serving as the goal markers; a man was throwing a stick for a tireless border collie to fetch; a young couple lay stretched out, the girl’s head resting on the stomach of a bearded youth who was looking away, at something in the sky that only he could see. The air was heavy, and although it would soon be eight o’clock, there was still a good deal of sunlight about—soft, slanting sunlight, with the quality that goes with light that has been about for the whole day and is now comfortable, used.

The coincidence was that Jamie should suddenly broach the subject of what it must be like to feel thoroughly ashamed of oneself. Later on she asked herself why he had suddenly decided to talk about that. Had he seen something on the Meadows to trigger such a line of thought? Strange things were no doubt done in parks by shameless people, but hardly in the early evening, in full view of passersby, on an evening such as this. Had he seen some shameless piece of exhibitionism? She had read recently of a Catholic priest who went jogging in the nude, and explained that he did so on the grounds that he sweated profusely when he took exercise. Indeed, for such a person it might be more convenient not to be clad, but this was not Sparta, where athletes disported naked in the palaestra; this was Scotland, where it was simply too cold to do as in Sparta, no matter how classically minded one might be.

Whatever it was that prompted Jamie, he suddenly remarked: “What would it be like not to be able to go out in case people recognised you? What if you had done something so . . . so appalling that you couldn’t face people?”

Isabel glanced at him. “You haven’t, have you?”

He smiled. “Not yet.”

She looked up at the skyline, at the conical towers of the old Infirmary, at the crouching lion of Arthur’s Seat in the distance, beyond a line of trees. “Some who have done dreadful things don’t feel it at all,” she said. “They have no sense of shame. And maybe that’s why they did it in the first place. They don’t care what others think of them.”

Jamie thought about this for a moment. “But there are plenty of others, aren’t there? People who have done something out of character. People who have a conscience and who yet suddenly have given in to passing temptation. Some dark urge. They must feel ashamed of themselves, don’t you think?”

Isabel agreed. “Yes, they must. And I feel so sorry for them.” It had always struck her as wrong that we should judge ourselves—or, more usually, others—by single acts, as if a single snapshot said anything about what a person had been like over the whole course of his life. It could say something, of course, but only if it was typical of how that person behaved; otherwise, no, all it said was that at that moment, in those particular circumstances, temptation won a local victory.

They walked on in silence. Then Isabel said, “And what about being made to feel ashamed of what you are? About being who you are.”

“But do people feel that?”

Isabel thought that they did. “Plenty of people feel ashamed of being poor,” she said. “They shouldn’t, but many do. Then some feel ashamed of being a different colour from those around them. Again, they shouldn’t. And others feel ashamed of not being beautiful, of having the wrong sort of chin. Of having the wrong number of chins. All of these things.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it is.” Jamie, she realised, could say that; the blessed do not care from what angle they are regarded, as Auden . . . She stopped herself, and thought instead of moral progress, of how much worse it had been only a few decades ago. Things had changed for the better: now people asserted their identities with pride; they would not be cowed into shame. Yet so many lives had been wasted, had been ruined, because of unnecessary shame.

She remembered a friend’s mother who had discovered, at the age of twelve, that she was illegitimate, that the father who had been said to have been killed in an accident was simply not there, a passing, regretted dalliance that had resulted in her birth. Today that meant very little, when vast cohorts of children sprang forth from maternity hospitals without fathers who had signed up to anything, but for that woman, Isabel had been told, the rest of her life, from twelve onwards, was to be spent in shame. And with that shame there came the fear that others would find out about her illegitimacy, would stumble upon her secret. Stolen lives, Isabel thought, lives from which the joy had been extracted; and yet we could not banish shame altogether—she herself had written that in one of her editorials in the Review of Applied Ethics, in a special issue on the emotions. Without shame, guilt became a toothless thing, a prosecutor with no penalties up his sleeve.

They were on their way to a dinner party, and had decided to walk rather than call a taxi, since the evening was so inviting. Their host lived in Ramsay Garden, a cluster of flats clinging to the edge of the Castle Rock like an impossible set constructed by some operatic visionary and then left for real people to move into. From the shared courtyard below, several cream-harled buildings, with tagged-on staircases and balconies, grew higgledy-piggledy skywards, their scale and style an odd mixture of Arts and Crafts and Scottish baronial. It was an expensive place to live, much sought-after for the views which the flats commanded over Princes Street and the Georgian New Town beyond.

She had told Jamie who their hosts were, but he had forgotten, and he asked her again as they climbed the winding stairway to the topmost flat. She found herself thinking: Like all men, he does not listen. Men switch off and let you talk, but all the time something else is going on in their minds.

“Fleurs-de-lis,” said Isabel, running her hand along the raised plaster motifs on the wall of the stairway. “Who are they? People I don’t know very well. And I think that I owe them, anyway. I was here for dinner three years ago, if I remember correctly. And I never invited them back. I meant to, but didn’t. You know how it is.”

She smiled at herself for using the excuse You know how it is. It was such a convenient, all-purpose excuse that one could tag it on to just about anything. And what did it say? That one was human, and that one should be forgiven on those grounds? Or that the sheer weight of circumstances sometimes made it difficult to live up to what one expected of oneself? It was such a flexible excuse, and one might use it for the trivial or the not so trivial. Napoleon, for instance, might say, Yes, I did invade Russia; I’m so sorry, but you know how it is.

Jamie ended her reverie. “They’ve forgiven you,” he said. “Or they weren’t counting.”

“Do you have to invite people back?” Isabel asked. “Is it wrong to accept an invitation if you know that you won’t reciprocate?”

Jamie ran his finger across the fleurs-de-lis. “But you haven’t told me who they are.”

“I was at school with her,” said Isabel. “She was very quiet. People laughed at her a bit—you know how children are. She had an unfortunate nickname.”

“Which was?”

Isabel shook her head. “I’m sorry, Jamie, I shouldn’t tell you.” That was how nicknames were perpetuated; how her friend, Sloppy Duncan, was still Sloppy Duncan thirty years after the name was first minted.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith
Copyright © 2008 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. At a somewhat dull dinner party, Isabel is engaged in a conversation about happiness with a doctor seated next to her. She argues, “most people are reasonably happy”; he argues that “most people are unhappy in one way or another” [p. 12]. With what evidence does he support his opinion? With whom do you agree, and why?

2. While Jamie is quite bored at the novel's opening dinner party [pp. 9–14], after a musical performance he is engaged in a conversation with the composer while Isabel feels ignored [pp. 36–39]. Why does Isabel feel herself to be at a disadvantage when the composer Nick Smart is present? What do these scenes indicate about Jamie and Isabel's status as a couple?

3. Why does Isabel treat the submission of an article by Christopher Dove so carefully? What feelings does she need to overcome in order to handle the situation? Does she do the right thing, or would it have been more satisfying if she had indulged her less noble instincts [pp. 24–29]?

4. Most of the novel is narrated from Isabel's point of view, but occasionally we are given access to the thoughts of Jamie [pp. 40, 45]. What would the story be like if Smith were to distribute access to the main characters' thoughts more equally? Would this have a positive or negative effect on your reading experience?

5. Jamie's relationship with Nick Smart gives rise to jealousy and anxiety in Isabel. She thinks, “if she was to keep Jamie, then she should not suffocate him; he had to have his freedom, had to have his own life…” [p. 45]. The fact of her being older is a source of worry. Does Isabel risk losing him because she doesn't speak often of her love for him? Does it seem likely that their relationship is temporary?

6. Isabel invites Eddie for dinner at her house, where they have a conversation about the worth of a painting she owns [p. 105]. Eddie is shocked by Isabel's obvious wealth, and asks her to lend him five hundred pounds. Why does Eddie lie to Isabel regarding the money? Do you agree with Isabel that a lie is harmful, and that “truth [is] built into the world” [p. 145]?

7. Interesting questions about the nature of sexual desire arise when Isabel, under hypnosis, has a vision of her ex-husband John Liamor and cries out to him [p. 112], and also when Jamie admits to himself that to hear Cat's name “hurt him and filled him with a disconcerting feeling of excitement” [p. 45]. Do these events suggest that the bond between Isabel and Jamie is not based primarily on sexual attraction?

8. Jamie reveals to Isabel that he's been meeting with Nick Smart because he's been working on composing a musical piece for Isabel, and Isabel realizes “she had misread everything-again” [p. 134]. What does Isabel need to learn about Jamie, and about herself?

9. Where, and in what kinds of situations, are the moments of comedy in the story? Look for example at Isabel's idea about a racehorse named Resentment Lingers, which causes her to smile while talking to Stella Moncrieff [p. 153]. How would you describe Isabel's sense of humor?

10. One of the things that is perhaps unusual in this series is the presence of “little snatches of poetry” which “provided their modicum of comfort, their islands of meaning that we all needed to keep the nothingness at bay; or at least Isabel felt that she needed them” [p. 157]. The poet most often quoted is W. H. Auden, whose biographer enters this story, giving a lecture that Isabel attends [pp. 169–70]. Does the presence of poetry enhance these novels, and if so, how?

11. How are the Isabel Dalhousie novels not typical of the mystery genre? How central to the reading experience is the mystery of how and why Marcus Moncrieff came to lose his reputation? Are other aspects of the plot equally interesting?

12. What does the revelation that Jamie is alienated from his family suggest (if anything) for his future with Charlie and Isabel [p. 217]?

13. Marcus Moncrieff's guilt or innocence is unclear until he himself tells Isabel the truth about his involvement in falsifying data [pp. 221–26]. What was his motivation? What can Isabel do to help him, given the circumstances? Why does she give him advice about his wife [p. 224]? Why is it interesting that she admits to Jamie, “I am a hopeless sleuth” [p. 226]?

14. Discuss the domestic “muddy Saturday” scene with which the story ends [pp. 237–40]. What does this scene suggest about the bonds between Isabel, Jamie and Charlie?

15. If you have read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, how does Isabel compare as a heroine to Precious Ramotswe? Which of the two characters do you prefer, and for what qualities? How are the two women alike?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 30 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2009

    I was disappointed

    Having read and loved all of Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels, I was fully prepared to be equally enthralled by the Isabel Dalhousie series. This book was the first of Smith's books I had read other than the aforesaid novels, and I was so disappointed. I found this book - well, boring, and as dull as any gloomy Edinburgh day can be. The good news is that I have been relieved of the need to read the rest of the series.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Isabel Dalhousie is a mature woman with a professional occupation who does it all!

    The main character (Ms. Isabel Dalhousie) in this series is a level headed woman who is ruled by her heart too, which is a attractive mix. She is not perfect, she gets angry with peers who try to take advantage of her professionally and has secret thoughts of revenge; she works but is family established rich but still mindful of the economics of others and has not forgotten about them. She has made past bad mistake with men and has been divorced, but not turned bitter. She cares enough about people to get involved in their problems when asked and is smart enough to figure things out. She still has a whimsical imagination when it comes to Mr. Fox in her garden. Oh, yeah and she is mature and in love with her younger lover and has his she is "au current" too. Living a live with parts we women wish we could have pieces of at times, and probably do, if we open our hearts. I enjoy this series so much I look forward to each book that comes out. The philosophy too has stirred up in me my past interests too. And the characters have morals and manners of how to treat others, which is most refreshing. Please let Ms. Dalhousie live forever! Thank you for this series, Mr. McCall-Smith.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2012

    Leaders den

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2011

    Growing a little tiresome

    I'm growing weary of Isabel's continuous worrying about whether or not she will be able to "keep" Jamie because he is younger than she is. On the one hand,Isabel is portrayed as independent, intelligent, a business owner, etc., yet she is deeply insecure about losing her younger lover? Give me a break. I'm also tired of Smith's consistent representation of men as unfaithful husbands. Where does he get this? As a wife, mother of sons, father's daughter and brothers' sister, I find this offensive. I have read several of Smith's Isabel books because I love the setting. I just do not think I can tolerate Smith's sexist writing any longer.

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  • Posted August 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Quiet Little Story

    I really love this series - all the books are really well written and I love learning about Scotland and have grown really fond of the characters.

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  • Posted November 15, 2009

    I love these books.

    This book is in the same vein as the others of the series. Not dramatic or thrilling. Just good writing about fairly every day characters that you grow to care about. If you like the Mitford series by Jan Karon, you'll probably like these books too. I love Alexander McCall Smith because his characters are every day decent people, his writing is superb, and his observations of everyday life are right on!

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