The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith

I read somewhere that Alexander McCall Smith writes his books almost as quickly as other people read them.

I can imagine this being the case. His books always make me feel as if I am inside some one else’s mind, watching their thoughts jump about. The character’s thoughts flit here, then follow another thought for a while, then you get sidetracked and head off somewhere else, then another thought pops up and off you go with that, then you slip back to where you left off from an earlier thought, and all the while you are circling around the main characters and the actual story.

I’ve read quite a few books by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve never managed to feel very affectionate about the characters in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, but I do enjoy The 44 Scotland Street series and The Sunday Philosophy Club Series, which The Charming Quirks of Others is part of.

Isabel Dalhousie is the main character in The Charming Quirks of Others and she is a lovely character. Her mind scampers around from topic to topic and gets sidetracked by all sorts of interesting ideas, which you never see coming. Isabel is a philosopher and her ideas and conversations (or McCall Smith’s) are much cleverer and more interesting than any I have or overhear on the train home from work. Today, everyone in my train carriage eavesdropped on a young woman who was telling a friend over the phone about the problems she was having with her boyfriend, who disappears for days at a time when he goes off drinking. Unfortunately the woman’s phone connection dropped out before she could announce her next move, and we were all left wondering if she intends to stay with him or not.

The slightness of the actual story of The Charming Quirks of Others does not really matter, as enjoying time with the characters (or eavesdropping in their minds) is the whole point. Many of the characters have also appeared in other books in the series and are familiar. The name of the book is misleading however, as Isabel is the only character with ‘charming quirks’. Other characters are likeable but not particularly quirky, or quirky but unpleasant.

A great many of the characters are entwined in the way that people who come from small communities are, where your and your neighbour’s grandmothers were first cousins, or your sister and your next door neighbour used to sit next to each other in school. McCall Smith makes you  feel that if you were chatting with the characters, you would find a connection or two also.

In The Charming Quirks of Others, Isabel is asked to conduct a discreet investigation into three candidates for the position of principal at an Edinburgh boy’s school. Each has a history which may make him unsuitable for the position. One of the candidates is the new boyfriend of Cat, Isabel’s neice. Cat used to go out with Jamie, who is now Isabel’s partner and the father of her little son. Jamie has an entanglement of his own, with a fellow musician who has only months to live. The woman wants Jamie to be her lover, as she has never had a relationship with a man. Isabel is such a generous woman she actually considers sharing Jamie in order to give the dying woman her wish.

The events in The Charming Quirks of Others resolved themselves to my satisfaction. Also, if anyone is wondering, I think the young woman on the train will continue her relationship with the boyfriend who goes walkabout when he is drinking, because she would already have left him otherwise.