Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

The alphabet in crime fiction community meme is stopping this time at the letter “R.” My thanks, as ever, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for making all of the tour arrangements and seeing that we’re all safe as we wend our treacherous way through the alphabet. I don’t even think anyone’s lost any luggage : ). My choice for this letter is Alexander McCall Smith’s The Right Attitude to Rain, the third in his Isabel Dalhousie series, published in 2006.

Isabel Dalhousie is an Edinburgh philosopher and the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. As the novel opens, Isabel is in a café when she notices an expensive car parking in a no-parking zone near the Scottish Gallery. A well-dressed man and woman get out of the car and go into the gallery. Curious about a couple that would be that cavalier about the local laws, Isabel goes into the gallery, too. She has a brief encounter with them, and finds out that they’re American, visiting the area.

Later, at home, Isabel and her housekeeper, Grace, prepare for a visit from Isabel’s American cousin, Mimi McKnight, and Mimi’s husband, Tom, who are visiting from Dallas. Mimi and Isabel are more than cousins; they’re friends, too, so Isabel’s eager to see the McKnights. When Mimi and Joe arrive, Isabel hosts a festive dinner that includes the McKnights, Isabel’s niece, Cat, who owns a local delicatessen, and Cat’s latest boyfriend, Patrick. In the days that follow, the McKnights settle into the routine of summer in Edinburgh, and Isabel returns to her routine of editing.

Then, Mimi and Joe invite Isabel to spend an upcoming week-end at the Scottish summer home of Tom Bruce and his fiancée, Angie, friends of theirs from Dallas. Isabel agrees and, in preparation, she invites the couple to dinner. The McKnights are invited, of course, and so is Jamie, Cat’s former boyfriend and still good friends with Isabel. When the McKnights’ friends arrive, Isabel realizes that these are the same people she saw at the Scottish Gallery. Now more intrigued than ever, Isabel begins to take stock of the couple. Tom Bruce is older than his beautiful fiancée, who seems to have eyes only for Jamie. As the evening progresses, Isabel and Mimi both sense the tension between Tom and Angie. In fact, Isabel even dreams that Tom is in danger from Angie. It doesn’t bode well for the upcoming week-end party, but plans move forward.

Two week-ends later, the McKnights, Isabel and Jamie (whom Angie has insisted on inviting) head to the country for a visit to the home that Tom and Angie have taken. The day after they arrive, Isabel and Tom Bruce take a hike together, while Angie commandeers Jamie to go shopping with her. During their hike, Tom tells Isabel that he’s always felt his home was in the wrong place, but he can’t rebuild it, because it’s jointly owned with his sister, whose husband is unwilling to take the house down and rebuild. It’s clear during the visit that there’s not much warmth between Tom and Angie, and that Angie doesn’t think much of Isabel, either.

Back in Edinburgh after the weekend, matters get complicated when Tom pays a visit to Isabel and shares some troubling news with her: he believes that Angie wants him dead. He tells Isabel about a visit he and Angie took to the Falls of Clyde. Tom nearly fell over the cliff, and Angie did nothing to keep him from falling. Isabel doesn’t tell Tom that she’d dreamed he was in danger. Against her better judgment, Isabel decides to get involved, and advises Tom to break off the engagement with Angie. Soon after Tom’s visit to Isabel, he and Angie return to the United States – separately. Mimi tells Isabel that Angie broke off the engagement because she was afraid of Tom, while Isabel knows what Tom has told her. Mimi and Joe return to Dallas, and Isabel returns to her own life, which is complicated enough.

Then, unexpectedly, Isabel receives a letter from Mimi with some disturbing news. Tom’s house in Dallas has burned to the ground. Tom, himself, barely escaped the fire with his life. It’s clear from the evidence that the fire was deliberately set. Did Angie set the fire? Did Tom set the fire? As Isabel and Mimi speculate about what happened, Isabel comes to a conclusion about the fire, and asks Mimi to pass some advice to Tom.

The Right Attitude To Rain is not a typical crime fiction novel (if there is such a thing). In the first place, although there is a crime, it’s not the center of the novel. In fact, it doesn’t occur until nearly the end of the story. Also, we don’t really get to find out who committed the crime; we can only speculate, along with Isabel and Mimi. There really isn’t an investigation into the crime, either. Again, we can only guess at what might have happened.

The real mystery and suspense in this novel is in the relationships among the characters. Tom and Angie, of course, have a troubled relationship at best. At one point, Tom confesses that he’s smitten with Isabel and would like to find someone just like her. Isabel’s flattered, but she’s preoccupied with her own love life, which has become quite complicated. She and Jamie, Cat’s former boyfriend, have begun to see each other, and that relationship causes complications for Isabel and Cat. What’s more, Angie has set her sights on Jamie, and doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the fact that he’s seeing Isabel. The reader becomes just as interested in what’s going to happen between Isabel and Jamie and between Isabel and Cat, as in anything else.

The Right Attitude to Rain is a quiet novel, and the pace is slow. The mystery and suspense in the novel are there, but they build slowly and incrementally. So, readers who prefer a fast-paced novel with twists and turns all throughout will be disappointed (although there is a surprising twist at the end of the story). The novel focuses more on characters and relationships than on events, so readers who prefer, for example, police investigations, multiple murders and so on will also be disappointed.

The real appeals of the novel are the setting and the characterization. The Right Attitude to Rain is as deeply infused with Scottish culture as Alexander McCall Smith’s other series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is with the culture of Botswana, and that’s a very appealing feature. The reader gets to know a very different Edinburgh from that of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and it’s an interesting and beautiful place. There’s also some fascinating Scottish history infused throughout the novel.

The characters are also interesting and multi-dimensional. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher of ethics, so she’s constantly concerned with larger questions and issues. Those moral questions permeate the novel and make the reader think. We also get to know the other characters, and we care what happens to them. They’re interesting people, and we learn that they’re more than what they seem at first.

The Right Attitude to Rain isn’t for everyone. However, it’s an engaging character study, an interesting “window” into Scottish culture, and a quiet read for those who like peaceful, quiet mysteries that involve humans and their relationships.

6 comments:

  1. I've read a couple of Alexander McCall Smith's books, but not this one. It sound interesting. I'll have to give it a try. Great post, thanks for sharing. Knowing how the novel flows before hand helps so that you're not expecting one thing and get another.

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  2. Mason - Thanks : ). I agree with you that it's always good to have a sense of what a book is going to be like before one reads it. This one really is interesting, actually, and if you've read and liked Alexander McCall Smith before, you'll probably like his quiet, evocative style in this one.

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  3. I really must read Alexander McCall Smith's books. It would be good to see another side of Edinburgh, even though I'm a big fan of Ian Rankin.

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  4. Margaret - I really like Ian Rankin, too : ). I was excited, in fac, that you're offering Rankin (and his John Rebus) for your contribution to the meme. Folks, Margaret's contribution is here. Smith's Edinburgh is different from Rankin's, and to me, it gives one a very interesting and different way to look at the same city.

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  5. I haven't got on too well with the Isabel Dalhousie books Margot. I think as a character she annoys me too much. But I love the No. 1 Ladies detective agency books. Did you see there is a new one coming out? The Double Comfort Safari Club

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  6. Kerrie - I've actually talked to several people who agree with you completely about Isabel Dalhousie. To be honest, I read this one because I wasn't familiar enough with this series and wanted to give it a fair go (i.e. more than just one novel). I have to say, I much prefer the No. 1.... series, myself. I did see about the new one, and I am eager for it. I always feel that when I read a new book in this series, it's like a reunion with friends.

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