McCall Smith, Alexander. The Sunday Philosophy Club.

NY: Pantheon, 2004.

It’s kind of interesting to read this rather gentle murder mystery shortly after a couple of Ian Rankin’s far from gentle police procedurals. Both authors set their stories in contemporary Edinburgh but from their equally detailed descriptions, their city might as well be located on two different planets.

Isabel Dalhousie is a single lady of independent means in her early forties, whose only real occupation is her position as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. She earned a degree in philosophy at Cambridge and her avocation is “morality,” by which she means not the narrow-minded imprecations of fundamentalist Protestants (of which there are still more than a few in the older neighborhoods of Edinburgh) but the rules laid down by Kant (most of which she doesn’t agree with) and even the issue of common courtesy, which allows society to function smoothly. (I wonder if Judith Martin reads this series?) Other than that, she buys paintings, works the crosswords (rapidly) every morning, and frequently has coffee and a pastry with her niece, Cat, who owns a delicatessen and who also serves as her surrogate daughter. And she has a peppery housekeeper who is a hoot. And then there’s Jamie, who is Cat’s rejected suitor and with whom Isabel is half in love herself, the twenty-year difference in their ages notwithstanding.

Isabel is in an upper level of the symphony hall one evening and sees a young man come crashing down from the high seats — “the gods” — above her, to be killed on the floor far below. A tragedy, but probably he simply slipped. Except she feels that the fact that he looked right at her as he passed, that she was the last person he saw before his death, puts a certain moral burden on her. Cat and Jamie urge her to mind her own business but that’s just not how Isabel’s mind works. And then her not very well thought out investigation turns up possible reasons to think the young man’s death may not have been accidental after all.

If you’re looking for a hard-nosed detective story, this isn’t it. (It doesn’t even end with an arrest, and the most unpleasant person in the story isn’t even slowed up.) But if you enjoy meeting characters of disparate personalities and watching how they interact with each other, this very much is your book. And Isabel’s intellect and its musings on right and wrong and the gray spaces between is almost a separate character by itself.

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