Alexander McCall Smith ~
In Praise of Weird Writers
He breaks the rules and does it right
Essay and art by Mo Conlan
When I first began reading Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, I floundered looking for plot. Clues. The cliff-hangers at the end of chapters. The smoking gun? Couldn’t find them, but I kept reading. Not quite yet a fan.
I am an avid reader of mysteries and crime fiction – best-sellers pounding with action -- replete with sadistic villains, flawed but bullet-proof heroes, and violence. (I try to skip over the violence.)
I’ve written a mystery novel myself. Suffered through writing workshops drilling the merit of plot points, nail-biting suspense, and conflict, conflict, conflict.
I didn’t find that in McCall Smith’s gentle novels. I did begin to see the charm of his characters, the Botswana ladies of traditional build who solve puzzles with common sense and a well-worn detective manual. I began to be drawn into their everyday dilemmas, reverence for their African homeland, and their drinking of Redbush tea.
McCall Smith breaks the rules. Instead of a pounding ride, the reader meanders with the lady detectives through the mind and heart of McCall Smith. His is a curious, lively, humorous, stuffed-to-the-brim mind -- and a heart as big as the Serengeti.
This author isn’t writing about crime. He’s writing about kindness, graciousness, civility. Traditions that soften life’s blows. Cherishing each other. He’s a master at creating real characters – not the cardboard ones we meet in many best-sellers – so he doesn’t sound too smarmy.
What McCall Smith is writing about is what I want to be writing about: goodness; quirky characters; the wonder of this world and its inhabitants. This new view of what a crime fiction novel can be gives me hope that I might, one day, finish my second novel, which presently languishes.
Not long ago, and perhaps still, there is a philosophy among novelists that goes: Take good people and do bad things to them. The novelist plays God. Characters are tested, humbled, fated. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with malevolence.
McCall Smith plays “god” with benevolence – his bad guys aren’t all bad. Lard O’Connor – the corpulent Glaswegian crook who is a recurring character in the “Scotland Street” series - is generous. He takes a shine to six-year-old Bertie and his stranded dad and gives them a car. (Be polite and don’t ask Mr. O’Connor where he got the car.)
I did, finally, tire of the Lady Detective books and moved on to the author's other series, set in Scotland -- "Espresso Tales," "44 Scotland Street," etc.
In the “Scotland Street” series, McCall Smith seems at the peak of his prodigious writing skills. His fictional world is large, Dickensian, only more cheerful. His characters are so quirky, so flawed that we cannot help loving them.
Six-year-old Bertie endures Italian lessons and psychotherapy – as his overbearing mother strives to foster his genius. Brave little Bertie – in the face of this full-gale mother - finds moments to be just a little boy.
The good guys have their faults and quirks. But their goodness goes deeper than convention. In McCall's Isabel Dalhousie series, the heroine is a “moral philosopher.” She scrupulously examines moral questions from the minute to the infinite.
Should she, as an act of charity, share her fiancé with a dying woman who fancies him? Isabel mulls this and global questions – at times the reader wants to shout “Use your common sense, woman.” Rightly enough, she decides not to share her man.
McCall Smith examines the messy involvements of his characters without much judgment. He does chide his fellow Scots. The pompous, the vain and, sometimes, the politically correct are targets. Still, it’s a gentle chiding. You sense him writing with a kind of joyous laughter in his head. And a bit of mischief.
In reading the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, I rediscovered what I’d always known about writing - before I took those pricey workshops. Readers will follow interesting character anywhere. The plot will fall into step with a long, winding good yarn.
You don’t even have to overly worry about how it ends. McCall Smith’s novels hark back to a time when stories were told around fires, evening after evening. The characters recur. But the story goes on and on and on.
Maureen (Mo) Conlan was for many years Books Editor at the Cincinnati Post and the Kentucky Post newspapers.
After McCall Smith, read another of Mo's essays on contemporary authors.
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