If your idea of mystery fiction runs to the hardboiled detective or even the sleuth blessed with an abundance of little gray cells, you may be disappointed with The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, the eighth novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. If you’re looking for murder and mayhem, sex and drugs you’re unlikely to find it here. Alexander McCall Smith doesn’t seem to be interested in the stuff of the typical mystery. Indeed, reading some of his books one has to wonder why they get shelved in with the mystery novels, in the first place.
Isabel Dalhousie, his heroine, is a philosopher. She owns and edits a scholarly journal dealing with applied ethics. She is well off thanks to an inheritance from her “sainted” American mother. She lives in a large house in Edinburgh with her younger fiancée a classical bassoonist and their two year old child. And whenever anyone, a friend, an acquaintance, an acquaintance of a friend needs help, she finds herself compelled to get involved. The most serious problems she seems to have dealt with in past novels are things like trying to clear the name of a doctor ruined by accusations of medical fraud or investigating the past of a candidate for the post of headmaster at the alma mater of a friend. More often than not, she manages to discover that people aren’t what they seem to be.
What the series lacks in thrills and chills, it makes up for with charm, wit and intelligence. You don’t read these books to find out “who done it,” you read them for the pleasure of spending a few hours following a sensitive, intellectual woman as she roams around Edinburgh speculating ingeniously about everything from moral responsibility to aesthetics and metaphysics. Her speculations are never dry or academic. Her field is “applied” ethics. Her speculations always stem from practical considerations.
The central plot of the novel is little more than a hook to hang these speculations on. The main plot line of The Forgotten Affairs of Youth concerns a visiting Australian philosophy professor who had been put up for adoption at birth and asks Isabel to help get information about her birth parents. There are some side issues involving her niece Cat, a recurring character in the series, and her coffee shop, a pompous troublemaking colleague, and even a bit about financial speculating by Isabel and her housekeeper, but by and large these are minor elements.
The lure of this book is in the pleasure of Isabel’s company. It isn’t often that you get a chance to enter into such an attractive mind. Some examples: she mulls over the morality of animal and questions “canine thought processes;” she ponders the problems raised by politically incorrect children’s classics. She and her fiancée Jamie talk about the effect of an artist’s unacceptable prejudices on his art: Wagner, Orf’s Carmina Burana. She thinks about how modern parents are overprotective, and the propensity for boys to play pranks. She worries about stereotyping and generalizing judgments. If the unexamined life is not worth living, she need have no qualms about hers. Every action is accompanied by intense self-examination analysis; every action is motivated by what she likes to call “moral proximity,” and these are the joys of the book.
If you’ve been following Isabel Dalhousie, you won’t want to miss The Forgotten Affairs of Youth; it is Smith at his genteel best. If you are meeting her for the first time, you’ve got seven volumes of catching up to do.