The words often used to describe the novels of Alexander McCall Smith—charm, warmth, wit—are not words very often used in connection with the run-of-the-mill novel likely to be housed alongside it in the mystery section of your local bookstore or library. Nonetheless, not only are they accurate descriptions of the work he turns out, they are the very qualities that draw his devotees to it. If you are looking for blood, guts, and grit, read Lee Child. If you are looking for forensic procedure, pick up Patricia Cornwell. If you want clever deduction, you can’t beat Dame Agatha. But if you want a gentle literate examination of human quirks and foibles spiced with a dash of mystery, Smith has the market cornered.
The Dog Who Came Out of the Cold, the second of his Corduroy Mansions series now out in paperback, is Smith at his best as he interweaves a variety of unrelated plot lines centered on the denizens of the eponymous London apartment house and their associates. Smith takes the old naturalist idea of the group hero and uses it to poke genteel fun at the human condition. The variety of characters gives him targets aplenty, and his aim is spot on.
The dog of the title is Freddie La Hay, a Pimlico terrier owned by an aging wine merchant who is persuaded to lend him to British intelligence to help with surveillance on a Pimlico terrier loving Russian industrial spy. Although the book takes its title from this plot line, it is really no more significant than some of the other strains. There are the young women who live on the second floor: Dee, a health food shop owner with a hair brained scheme to grow her business; Caroline, looking for love from her germophobe boyfriend. There are the partners in the Ragg Porter Literary Agency: Barbara, who is off to Scotland to meet the family of her younger beau; Rupert, who is obsessed with envy of her apartment and skeptical of an author who is writing a book about the life of a yeti. There is the therapist Berthea, the mother of Barbara’s ex-boyfriend, who has to deal with a pair of charlatans seeking to dupe her gullible brother Terence into funding a Centre for Cosmological Studies.
Smith juggles the different strains, moving skillfully from one to the other, and while they are entertaining enough, Smith’s real power lies in creating British characters, originals worthy of Dickens. Central figures like the clueless Terence Moongrove with his silver Porsche and William French, the good natured ineffectual wine merchant, as well as lesser figures like Sebastian Duck, the unlikely Intelligence chief; and Martin, who works for Dee in the health food store and feels harassed by her passion for colonic irrigation, are masterful comic portraits. And the book is filled with them. Smith even manages to turn the faithful Freddie into a well rounded character with a personality all his own.
Smith’s prose is rich and literate. Whether he is referencing Proust or Dante, alluding to Poussin or Mungo Park, he never writes down to his reader. He assumes a common cultural heritage and builds upon it. When he makes a reference to Wordsworth and daffodils, he expects his readers to understand what he is talking about. When he talks about a “Madeira, m’dear” moment he doesn’t go out of his way to explain; explanation would kill the spontaneity of the wit. His comedy is not of the biting satiric sort. If there is satire here, it is satire in the Horatian style. It is humor more likely to make you smile than it is to get you laughing out loud.
In a time when popular taste runs to gritty mystery thrillers like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a book like The Dog Who Came Out of the Cold may not get the same kind of attention from the casual reader and his ilk. This is unfortunate; they will be missing a delightful reading experience. If there are those that will find Smith too tame for their tastes, fortunately there will always be a loyal audience for charm, warmth, and wit.