Smith's diverting second Corduroy Mansions novel (after Corduroy Mansions) focuses mainly on the misadventures of London wine merchant William French. When Angelica Brockelbank, an attractive acquaintance of William's he hasn't seen in years, unexpectedly shows up at his door in Pimlico, he's surprised to learn that, instead of running a bookshop, Angelica now works for Britain's MI6. He's further dumbfounded when an intelligence colleague of Angelica's asks him to eavesdrop on some Russian spies with his Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay. The complications will elicit no more than smiles, though a passage toward the end about a notorious Margaret Thatcher quotation will raise a genuine laugh. Somewhat anemic characters, a silly subplot involving the autobiography of a yeti, and a lack of trenchant observations about human nature may disappoint those expecting the high quality of Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. (June)
Seventy-eight more slices of low-key comedy, originally serialized in theDaily Telegraph,concerning the denizens of Pimlico's Corduroy Mansions and their lovers, friends and unavoidable relatives.
The outlook isn't good for wine merchant William French and his caterer friend Marcia, who keeps coming out with too many nitwit remarks for him to take seriously, or for his downstairs neighbor Caroline and her fellow art student James, a sensitive, sympathetic mysophobe who's not into physical expressions of attachment. But literary agent Barbara Ragg's new romance with Hugh Macpherson defangs her long-standing feud with her partner Rupert Porter, exacerbated now by a new problem: the agency's mild, delusional client Errol Greatorex, who's mistakenly been encouraged to serve as amanuensis for the Abominable Snowman's autobiography. And psychotherapist Berthea Snark, still gathering material for her tell-all biography of her son Oedipus, the most loathsome Liberal Democrat in Parliament, never seems to have a nice day, especially now that her brother, clueless mystic Terence Moongrove, has fallen in with a pair of sharpies determined to fleece him. But Caroline's herbalist flatmate Dee has had a notable idea that may just take off—marketing gingko bilboa as a remedy for failing sudoku fans—and William's faithful Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay, vaults to a leading role when he's recruited by Sebastian Duck of MI6 to spy on neighborhood Russian blackmailer Anatoly Podgornin. As in his series debut (Corduroy Mansions,2009), Smith places exactly the same emphasis on the cloak-and-dagger histrionics of espionage; the pursuit of the yeti through Fortnum & Mason; and the question of who stood whom up for dinner, Caroline or James. The results will charm fans who thought44 Scotland Street(2005) and its sequels should have been set in London.
Like Henry James, Smith clearly believes that relations stop nowhere; unlike James, he seems determined to trace every single one of them to its vanishing point.
From the Publisher
Praise for the Cordury Mansions series
“[Here is a] wonderful world of realistic characters getting up to real mischief in McCall Smith’s velvety prose and vivid imagination.”
“McCall Smith is a writer of such fond, heartfelt geniality that . . . fans will be grateful that the series has just begun.”
“[McCall Smith] cooks up a delicious story that seems part Restoration comedy and part Victorian novel, tossed with a dash of mystery and a dollop of satire. . . . Comfortable, easy, homey.”
—The Washington Post
“A nice little confectionery.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“McCall Smith is the P.G. Wodehouse of our time, and we should be grateful for his prolificacy.”
“You cannot beat McCall Smith for subtle musings shot through with insight and wit. His deft characterization enlivens the inner workings of everyday characters. His work offers a heartening view of a world that often appears heartless.”
—The Daily Telegraph (London)
“Whimsical. . . . McCall Smith specializes in subplots that punctuate the book like polka dots, relying on his considerable literary skills to link them into a merry pattern of human events.”
—The Washington Times
“Quirky and original. . . . Told with warmth, wit and intelligence, and McCall Smith’s cast of characters are beautifully observed.”
“[Full] of warmth and wisdom and easy, accomplished writing that begs for a comfy chair.”
—The Times (London)
“Very agreeable. . . . McCall Smith has . . . a rare and enviable gift.”
Read an Excerpt
1. What Our Furniture Says About Us
William French, wine merchant, Master of Wine (failed), somewhere in his early ﬁfties (hardly noticeably, particularly in the right light), loyal subscriber to Rural Living (although he lived quite happily in central London), longtime supporter of several good causes (he was a kind man at heart, with a strong sense of fairness), widower, dog-owner, and much else besides; the same William French looked about his ﬂat in Corduroy Mansions, as anybody might survey his or her ﬂat in a moment of self-assessment, of stocktaking.
There was a lot wrong with it, he decided, just as he felt there was a lot that was not quite right with his life in general. Sorting out one’s ﬂat, though, is often easier than sorting out oneself, and there is a great deal to be said for ﬁrst getting one’s ﬂat in order before attempting the same thing with one’s life. Perhaps there was an adage for this—a pithy Latin expression akin to mens sana in corpore sano. Which made him think . . . Everybody knew that particular expression, of course; everybody, that is, except William’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Eddie, who had once rendered it within his father’s hearing as “men’s saunas lead to a healthy body.” William had been about to laugh at this ingenious translation, redolent, as it was, of the cod Latin he had found so achingly funny as a twelve-year-old boy: Caesar adsum iam forte, Pompey ad erat. Pompey sic in omnibus, Caesar sic in at. Caesar had some jam for tea, Pompey had a rat . . . and so on. But then he realised that Eddie was serious.
The discovery that Eddie had no knowledge of Latin had depressed him. He knew that the overwhelming majority of people had no Latin and did not feel the lack of it. The problem with Eddie, though, was that not only did he not have Latin, he had virtually nothing else either: no mathematics worthy of the name, no geography beyond a knowledge of the location of various London pubs, no knowledge of biology or any of the other natural sciences, no grasp of history. When it came to making an inventory of what Eddie knew, there was really very little to list.
He put his son out of his mind and returned to thinking about the proposition mens sana in corpore sano. Was there an equivalent, he wondered, to express the connection between an ordered ﬂat and an ordered life? Vita ordinata in domo ordinata? It sounded all right, he felt—indeed, it sounded rather impressive—but he found himself feeling a little bit unsure about the Latin. Domus was feminine, was it not? But was it not one of those fourth declension nouns where there was an alternative ablative form—domu rather than domo? William was not certain, and so he put that out of his mind too.
He walked slowly about his ﬂat, moving from room to room, thinking of what would be necessary to reform it completely. Starting in the drawing room, he looked at the large oriental carpet that dominated the centre of the room. It was said that some such carpets gained in value as the years went past, but he could not see this happening to his red Baluch carpet, which was beginning to look distinctly tattered at the edges. Then there was the furniture, and here there was no doubt that the chairs, if once they had been fashionable, no longer were. If there was furniture that spoke of its decade, then these chairs positively shouted the seventies, a period in which it was generally agreed design lost its way. It would all, he thought, have to be got rid of and replaced with the sort of furniture that he saw advertised in the weekend magazines of the newspapers. Timeless elegance was the claim made on behalf of such furniture, and timeless elegance, William considered, was exactly what he needed.
He would give his own furniture to one of those organisations that collect it and pass it on to people who have no furniture of their own and no money to buy any. The thought of this process gave him a feeling of warmth. He could just imagine somebody in a less favoured part of London waiting with anticipation as a completely free consignment of surplus furniture—in this case William’s—was unloaded. He pictured a person who had previously sat on the ﬂoor now sitting comfortably on this Corduroy Mansions armchair, not noticing the large stain on the cushion of which Eddie had denied all knowledge, though it was deﬁnitely his responsibility. It was a most unpleasant stain, that one, and William had never enquired as to exactly what it was. Yet he had noticed that Marcia, when she had lived with him, had studiously avoided ever sitting on that chair. And who could blame her?
Our furniture, he reﬂected, says so much about us, and our tastes—perhaps more than we like to acknowledge. We may not like a piece of furniture now, but the awkward fact remains that we once were a person who liked it. And unlike clothes, which are jettisoned with passing fashion, furniture has a habit of staying with us, reminding us of tasteless stages of our lives. William looked at his settee; he had bought it at a furniture shop off the Tottenham Court Road—he remembered that much—but he would never buy something like that now. And certainly not in that colour. Did they still make mauve furniture? he wondered.
He moved on to the kitchen. William liked his kitchen, and often sat there on summer evenings, looking out of the window over the rooftops behind Corduroy Mansions, watching the sun sink over west London. Sometimes, if conditions were right, the dying sun would touch the edge of the clouds with gold, making for a striking contrast with the sky beyond, as sharply delineated as in a Maxﬁeld Parrish painting. He would sit there and think about nothing in particular, vaguely grateful for the display that nature was providing but also conscious of the fact that there was not enough beauty in his life and that it would be nice to have more.
Now, surveying his kitchen from the doorway, he saw not the outside vista but the inside—the cork ﬂoor that needed replacing, the scratched surfaces that surely fostered an ecosystem in which whole legions, entire divisions of Pseudomonas were encamped. Best not to think about that, nor about the bacteria which undoubtedly romped around the faithful body of his dog, Freddie de la Hay, who was sitting on the kitchen ﬂoor, looking up at his master in mute adoration, and wondering, perhaps, what the problem was.