I lost 44 Scotland Street and then I found it again. Yes, I looked for it all over the house and couldn't find it anywhere so I knew I must have left it somewhere and the only place I could have left it was at the sauna, at the excercise club I sometimes (but not often enough) frequent. I finally got myself organised to go in I asked after it and yes, it was still there by the sauna, but with another book mark in it. Someone else who had a sauna after I did had started it - in preference to the many magazines offered- and marked their place hoping no doubt to continue when they came again. They did not make off with it. I almost felt guilty taking it away with me. Now that I have finished the book I think I may take it back and place it with the magazines so my unknown reader can continue!
Somehow that was like the book itself - a little moral anecdote -peripheral to plot. That is 44 Scotland Street. The book was not about the sketchy story line, not really about the Peploe that turns out to be a Vetrianno and then a nothing, not about Pat and her murky past and not about her supposed love affair with the narcisstic Bruce. It was about the little incidents and philosophical asides that flesh out the characters. McCall Smith offers up a view into a number of lives, a pastiche of people and their messy but compelling situations in a restricted window of time and as always with a complex moral sense that gets the reader thinking - or should. It reminds me of Seinfeld. And McCall Smith says it very well in the introduction when he says: It is in observing the minor ways of people that one can still see very clearly the moral dilemmas of our time.
Here is a small sample - an exchange between two lesser but important characters: Domenica the older woman who has seen much and Angus Lordie an anti-establishment artist with a dog that winks.
"We live in such a humourless age" Domenica remarked. It used to be possible to laugh. It used to be possible to enjoy oneself with fantasies - such as your ridiculous hymn- sorry, Angus- but now? Well now there are all sorts of censors and killjoys. Earnest ignorant poeple who lecture us on what we can think and say. And do you know we have lain down and submitted to the whole process. It's been the most remarkable display of passivity. With the result that when we encounter anybody who thinks independently or who doesn't echo the received wisdoms of the day we are astonished." [Angus replies]
" In such a way is freedom of thought lost ... by small cuts. By small acts of disapproval. By a thousand discouragments of spirit."
And here is the priceless inner dialogue of Bertie's Mum;
Irene cast a glance over in the direction of the mysterious politician. Bertie was right: there might well be a strong resemblance between Tam Dalyell and Robin Harper and certainly if one asked the average five year old boy to say which was which one would not expect a clear answer. But there was nothing average about Bertie of course. Now she was uncertain herself. It was very unsettling really not being sure whether one was confronted with Mr Dalyell or Mr Harper and really should one find oneself in this position? Robin Harper was younger than Mr Dalyell who was a very senior politician and one might be expected to distinguish on those grounds. But Mr Dalyell did not really show the years at all and both had a rather, how should one put it , enigmatic look to them, as if they knew the answer to some important questions and we did not and both of course were good men of whom there was a very short supply. She smiled. How was the matter to be resolved short of asking him directly? But what would one say " Are you or are you not Tam Dalyell? sounded a bit accusing as it there was something wrong with being Tam Dalyell. And if one were to be given a negative answer, would one proceed to say: " In that case are you Robin Harper?" That sounded as if it was somehow second best to be Robin Harper which of course it would certainly not be, at least if one were Robin Harper in the first place. Presumably Robin Harper was quite happy about being Robin Harper. He certainly looked contented with his lot.
Tam Dalyell and Robin Harper are real politicians of course ( there are footnotes). They are not the only real person to play bit parts in the book. Ian Rankin shows up rather prominently (no doubt with his permission) as the purchaser of the perhaps Peploe. Real places are used too of course and these references to real Edinburgh must have been a delight to the readers of The Scotsman where the book was serialised.
There are lots of loose ends so I am not surprised his readers demanded a sequel. I want to find out:
Does Bertie escape his Stalin of a mother and get to go to Watsons where he can finally be blood brothers with Jock and get to ride on a train?
Does Mathew actually find a carreer that he could be good at?
Does Bruce get into the wine trade now that he has been fired?
And will we ever find out why Pat is on her second gap year except that something went frightfully wrong with a man with a patch in Australia?
And if that sounds like plot, no, it is character because we wouldn't care at all what happens except that Smith makes us care by his delineation of character.