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At the Villa of Reduced Interest
Laist finally finished all three of Alexander McCall Smith's short comic novels in the Portugese Irregular Verbs trilogy, just in time to get caught up for the first book in a new series and the latest book in an old one. After a very successful six-book run in a planned eight-book arc about the Botswanan detective Precious Ramotswe, Smith launched a new set of mysteries around Scottish moral philosopher Isabel Dalhousie. The Sunday Philosopher's Club is the first installment. We thought it would be a good time to catch up on our unread Smithiania.
Smith is so hot these days that he can release his old backlist and it'll sell. These books, which Smith wrote years before the successful #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but were republished in December of 2004, concern the (mis) adventures of a very narrowly specialized German professor, Herr Dr Professor Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld. They are (in order) Portugese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances. Von Igelfeld bumbles around universities, trying to appease his own ego and diminish the success of his colleagues. It's very much in the manner of Wodehouse, but we didn't feel that Smith was at his best here.
Sometimes there's a reason why an author's older titles shouldn't be republished. What struck us most strongly as a problem in these novels was the similarity of dialogue style to the voice of Precious Ramotswe. We had always believed that the way in which Precious makes absolute statements (such as, "That would be a very bad thing" or "He is a good man") was a particular quirk of her dialogue and moral values. We were very shocked to find von Igelfeld, and his colleagues in Cambridge and Germany, talking in much the same way. Perhaps this is the way Smith hears the world, but it makes Precious seem much less special - and von Igelfeld rather derivative. We hope Isabel isn't going to talk this way too, when we get around to reading her series.
We also weren't thrilled with the way that Smith reduces entire countries to cliches. It's bluntly patronizing that a doddering German professor manages to take over the government of Colombia, by accident. Stereotypes are always humor's currency, but Precious is beloved for being a much more complex character. Frankly, we don't think she would approve of these books.
We're much more interested to find out if anyone has plunked down the money for a subscription to the Scotsman to read Smith's serial narrative in that paper. If you've read it, please let us know if it's any good. We're certainly willing to give him another chance. And despite our misgivings, we're still going to read The Sunday Philosopher's Club as soon as we have to get on another plane. Escapism, thy name is Alexander, even if he is getting a little overexposed.