In the fabulous new installment in the best-selling adventures of Isabel Dalhousie, Isabel is asked to help a doctor who has been disgraced by allegations of scientific fraud concerning a newly marketed drug. Our ever-curious moral philosopher finds her interest piqued. Would a doctor with a stellar reputation make such a simple but grave mistake? If not, what explains the tragic accident that resulted in the death of a patient? Clearly, an investigation is in order, especially since a man's reputation is in jeopardy. Could he be the victim of someone else's mistake? Or perhaps he has been willfully deceived by a pharmaceutical company with a great deal to gain.
Not every problem prompts an investigation (take, for example, her ongoing struggle with her housekeeper, Grace, over the care of Isabel's infant son, Charlie), but, as we've seen, whatever the case, whatever the solution, Isabel's combination of spirit, smarts, empathy, and unabashed nosiness guarantees a delightful adventure.
In Smith's winning fifth novel to feature Edinburgh philosophical sleuth Isabel Dalhousie (after The Careful Use of Compliments), Dalhousie, who's recently assumed ownership of the obscure journal she's edited for many years, the Review of Applied Ethics, applies her deductive gifts to the case of a disgraced doctor. When a patient dies after taking a new antibiotic that Marcus Moncrieff deemed safe in clinical trials, the doctor's original report turns out to contain falsified data. Did Moncrieff skew the data to please the drug manufacturers? Moncrieff's wife turns to Isabel for help in lifting her husband out of his despondency. While the truth isn't straightforward, the motives of the guilty party prove to be both plausible and rational. The strengths of the book, as with Smith's better known No. 1 Ladies' Detective series, lie in its protagonist's determination to treat others without judgment--and in the author's revealing glimpses into the human soul. (Sept.)
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September 21, 2008
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Excerpt from The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith
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."
"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.