Charming. That is the one word review applicable to Alexander McCall Smith’s books. Sometimes treated with disdain by literary types, his series are nevertheless phenomenally successful. So why do so many people love, or hate, his books?
Two of his most popular series are detective series - The No. 1 Lady Detective and The Sunday Philosophy Club. But there are no conflicted investigators or grisly crimes to be solved. They revolve around cheats and liars and two women determined to set things right. Some of the series, including Corduroy Mansions, don’t even have strong central conflicts, but rather have a large cast of characters around which the plot develops. Much of what is entertaining about these books is watching ordinary people muddling their way through mundane lives.
Watching a book show (First Tuesday Book Club, my favourite TV show) last year, a guest stated she would never read an Alexander McCall Smith book when she hadn’t read all of Emile Zola’s novels yet. Well, good for her. Having yet failed to hit it off with Zola (albeit having read only two of his many novels) I don’t understand the contradiction in reading both, but it is typical of the snobbery existing in literary circles. It is the same kind of snobbery that looks down its nose at any genre fiction, as though being shelved under literary fiction at your local bookstore is the only marker of quality. I love to read books that open my mind, that challenge me, and I appreciate quality prose, but I also want books that just entertain me.
Will these books change the course of the world? Be studied for centuries by university types? No. But they are generally entertaining. And A Conspiracy of Friends is no exception. It is a very gentle humour, and inevitably with such a prolific author, it is familiar. But it is so damn charming it’s hard not to read it without a smile on your face. I don’t want to give the impression that people in these books are always ‘nice’ because they aren’t. Characters niggle at each other, undermine and exasperate each other in ways that only people who know you well can. It is often very recognisable, but written with a lightness of tone that doesn’t weigh it down in the realities of life. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but an author who can write accidents involving the Large Hadron Collider in a comedy, is someone who deserves to be enjoyed.