The opening titles of two eccentric crime fiction series that I’d started reading in mid-series; not that they need to be read in sequence, but it can be satisfying if you do.
Apart from being more or less contemporary, inhabiting territory on the fringes of the mainstream genre, being set in the UK but not in England and the fact that I’ve just read them one after the other, there’s not a lot they have in common. The humour of Alexander McCall Smith‘s The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004) is whimsical – there are no actual meetings of the Sunday Philosophical Club in the book, for example – while the author previously known as Colin Bateman‘s Mystery Man (2009) trades in sharp wit and deadpan belly laughs. One has the greatest respect for a poet – Auden, or WHA as he’s affectionately referred to – while the other doesn’t have much time any of ’em: “… they’re supposed to be a randy bunch, aren’t they? And they’ve so much time on their hands. Poems, I mean, you can knock them out in an hour.” These are traits that carry through both series. Here’s probably the one passage you might have trouble placing, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary (thought I’d better spell that out):
She was intrigued to see devout Catholics cross themselves at the mention of the BVM – and she liked the acronym BVM itself, which made Mary sound so reassuringly modern and competent, like a CEO or an ICBM, or even a BMW.
That’s actually Isabel Dalhousie, Alexander McCall Smith‘s heroine, who is mostly full of propriety but laced with a redeeming quirkiness and a moral imagination that drives the inquisitiveness that makes her – she gets involved in things – an accidental amateur sleuth. Bateman‘s anti-hero is the owner of the fictional No Alibis crime bookshop – a man with no name – who operates as a private investigator as a sideline, almost a hobby. Mystery Man tells how this came about (the private investigator next door stopped answering his door and returning phone calls; why becomes part of the plot).
The Sunday Philosophy Club gives us Isabel’s back story – how she was drawn to philosophy and became the editor of the Review of applied ethics, and the nature of her single status – a significant but failed relationship with one of her lecturers that lasted a lot longer than uni. What surprised me is that her niece, Cat, in this opening book in the series, has already dumped beau Jamie, who is to grow in significance as the novel sequence unfolds. The tone is set from the start, whereas Mystery Man‘s main man in his opening episode is a bit of a scattergun – if still utterly Batemanesque – experiment. All the later characteristics are there – the hypochondria, the Twix and diet coke diet, crime fiction bookshop survival, morbid fear of the countryside, und so weiter – but it’s more finely honed in the later books. His liaison with girlfriend/reluctantly acknowledged partner-in-crimefighting is gleefully introduced here.
Isabel lives in an Edinburgh that is not Ian Rankin’s Rebus’s turf:
Edinburgh, it was said, was built on hypocrisy. It was the city of Hume, the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, but then what had happened? Petty Calvinism had flourished in the nineteenth century and the light had gone elsewhere … And Edinburgh had become synonymous with respectability, and with doing things in the way in which they had always been done. Respectability was such an effort, though, and there were bars and clubs where people might go …
not that she would go to them too often (if at all), while the bookseller-with-no name abides in what we can still just about call post-Troubles Belfast:
This city has changed so much. It used to be divided, now it’s divided into quarters. War zone to gentrification. T.B.Sheets to continental quilts.
And in that T.B.Sheets reference – it has to be a nod to Belfast Boy Van Morrison, even if his song of that title is set in Ladbroke Grove – we see another major difference between the two. Isabel Dalhousie does not play no rock and roll; some of the serious composers she cites could be fictional for all I know. Indeed she – and presumably McCall Smith – are a bit sniffy about moral decline and the ’60s and ’70s altogether. Bateman, on the other hand, pulls off an Agatha Christie-style unmasking of the murderer, by way of a PowerPoint presentation to the assembled interested parties with a soundtrack that includes Talking Heads’ Psychokiller and Elvis Costello’s Watching the detectives.
I’m happy in both their companies, depending on mood. Isabel’s exploits are entertainingly accompanied by a pretty much stream of consciousness (with no hint of the sub-conscious) of a cultured moral philosopher (and the ethics of pretty much everything) cut with the crossword she’s doing and concerned quality soap opera. She’s as decent a human being and inventive a sleuth as McCall Smith‘s other great creation – Precious Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – with an intellectual but broad cultural varnish. Among some of the people who get a mention in The Sunday Philosophy Club are: the aforementioned Auden, Wilhelm Reich, Max and Morris (the very first comic book characters), philosophers Hume and Kant (she’s not a great fan), Jekyll & Hyde, Oor Wullie and his friends Soapy Soutar and Fat Boab (from a Scottish children’s comic), painters Hockney, Hopper and Jack Vettriano, Stanley Spencer, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol (she’s not keen on those last two), and writers Graham Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. I had fun, but don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Bateman‘s proprietor of No Alibis is relentless in other ways, “… come hell or high water. And with my luck, it would be both.” The publisher who sets the big case he’s working on in Mystery Man rolling is a publisher, “a producer of decaffeinated coffee table books masquerading as a beleaguered champion of culture.” In due reverence to the crime genre that earns his keep, he assigns a title to each extra-curricular problem he works on. The origins of ‘The case of the Dancing Jews’ are back in The Holocaust and it’s quite a story, but really, with both authors, the crime plotting is almost incidental to the fun, the joy in reading, to be had.
[I’m finding it impossible not to quote a piece of graffiti from Mystery Man, one of series of potentially slanderous slogans dotted around Belfast, a minor case that is solved early on in the book but which somehow weaves its way back into the whole shebang. Well it made me laugh: “Rev. Derek Coates does not believe in transubstantiation.”]