Alexander McCall Smith seems to sprout series like my lawn sprouts dandelions. And while there are those who see in the lowly dandelion nothing but a weed, there are always those of us, like Ray Bradbury, who looks back to it as the wine of youth. Corduroy Mansions, which announces itself as the first in a new series, may well spark similar dual reactions among readers. There are those who will be upset with the many characters introduced and left hanging, and the many plot elements left unresolved. There will be those who are enchanted by the large cast of charming oddball characters and look forward to meeting them again in future volumes, who are happy, like fans of serial dramas and soap operas, to wait for future episodes to deal with unresolved issues.
In Corduroy Mansions, rather than focusing on one individual as he does in his Isabel Dalhousie series, Smith introduces a cast of more than a dozen characters all in some way associated with a particular three-flat building in the Pimlico section of London. There are the people who live in the flats, a wine merchant and his son on the top floor, four young single women who share the middle floor apartment, and a mysterious middle aged man on the ground floor. There are the people associated with these tenants: prospective love interests for the young ladies and the wine merchant, friends, business associates and employers. There are even relatives and love interests of some of these once removed characters. What you get is a kind of panoramic picture of a certain segment of London society in all its variety.
The narrative moves rapidly between almost as many story lines as there are characters. The wine merchant wants his son out of the flat and on his own. The son dislikes dogs, so the merchant agrees to a time share arrangement for an ex-drug sniffing dog ponderously named Freddie de la Hay to try to get the boy to move. One of the young women is an art student who is testing a relationship with one of her fellow students who she had thought was gay. Another works for an obnoxious member of Parliament, tellingly named Oedipus Snark, who is involved with a literary agent who breaks up with him during a weekend at Rye only to become involved with a younger man she picks up driving out of the car park. Complicated? You bet. And these are only a sample. There is more, a lot more.
In some sense the various plot lines, where very little of momentous import occurs, are less significant than what amounts to a gentle satiric portrayal of life among the denizens of Corduroy Mansions and their cohorts. Smith, like the naturalists of a previous century, takes the reader on a tour of a slice of the life of a group, but unlike them he doesn’t attack, he pokes and prods at their follies and foibles. These are not evil people. At worst they are selfish and uncaring; at best they are simply figures of modern self absorption. More often than not they are simply inept and unable to confront either their problems or one another until things get so overly complicated they have no other choice. Some seem more quirky and inept than others, but all of them are inadequate in one way or another.
As he does in his other novels, along the way Smith provides the reader with some interesting intellectual nuggets of speculation on a variety of subjects. Isabel Dalhousie, for example, likes to ponder over problems of practical ethics. In Corduroy Mansions similar questions arise about things like the treatment of animals and importing food. Characters discuss everything from the nature of beauty to the biology of scallops, from humane architecture to the psychology of dogs. While these discussions reflect the breadth of Smith’s interests, they are always bound to character and never become distractions.
Readers willing to put up with the many unresolved plot points will find a lot to like in this first of his new series. They will be happy to know that the second in the series, The Dog Who Came in From the Cold, is already available in hardcover. Who knows, the answers to some of the questions left from Corduroy Mansions may be sitting there awaiting the determined reader.