Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith

Mr Neff and I are both devoted fans of Alexander McCall Smith. We go to the Wheaton Public Library's web site and place a hold on each of his new books as soon as we learn its title--often even before the library has written up the purchase order. Last week we discovered we had both reserved The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, so on Friday I checked out two of the library's three brand-new copies. It's been an exciting weekend at the Neffs'.

McCall Smith is best known for his series that begins with The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency featuring Mma Ramotswe, a wise woman of Botswana (volume 11 will publish in the U.S. in April). His Isabel Dalhousie series--Isabel is an ethicist from Edinburgh--now includes six novels (volume 7 is due in September). He has written three small comic novels about German professors, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, with a fourth novel in the works. He has also written a stand-alone novel set in World War II, La's Orchestra Saves the World. The book Mr Neff and I just read is fifth in the Scotland Street series about an assortment of characters ranging from feckless and bewildered to hilariously horrible. And in July McCall Smith begins a new series with Corduroy Mansions.

Of all these delightful books--every one published since 2003--the Scotland Street series may be the most fun.

Written as an ongoing serial novel with daily installments in The Scotsman, the intersecting stories have "numerous plots; characters drift in and out; some matters are unresolved; strange things happen" (from the Preface to Unbearable Lightness). These are books to enjoy after a hard day's work. They require little effort, they make you laugh, and the characters quickly seem like neighbors.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, Irene, the quintessential pushy mother, is distressed to learn that her therapist is leaving town. Angus Lordie, the scruffy artist, must deal with the six puppies inadvertently sired by his gold-toothed dog, Cyril. Big Lou, who owns the coffee shop where everyone gathers, gets involved with a Jacobite pretender. Bruce Andersen of the clove-scented hair gel takes his narcissism to new depths. Domenica, the retired anthropologist, believes her next-door neighbor is a thief and a drug pusher. Stuart, who perpetually misplaces his car, finally stands up to Irene. The Glaswegian gangster, Lard O'Connor, is sent off in style. And those are only some of the stories that will keep you chuckling till well past your bedtime.

The star of Scotland Street is the eternally six-year-old Bertie, an Italian-speaking, saxophone-playing, yoga-practicing prodigy who dreams of becoming a Cub Scout... until he learns that his nemesis, Olive (surely Lucy Van Pelt in a previous incarnation), will be allowed to become one too.

The books in the Scotland Street series should be read in order, so begin with 44 Scotland Street. But do start soon and read fast. Volume 6 is already half written.


Alex said...

i love no 1 ladies detective agency but have never tried the 44 scotland st series. will have to give it a go!!

Helen Harper said...

My heart goes out to Bertie. I'm glad his father finally stood up to his wife. I think Lard O'Conner was a unique, sympathetic character.