I wonder how much my enthusiasm for Alexander McCall Smith’s stories about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, came from reading them while in a French hospital recovering from an emergency operation? Grateful to be transported from my hospital bed to Botswana and find myself in her company I wouldn’t have heard a word against her. And when his first Edinburgh book came out called 44 Scotland Street, where years ago I once had digs, did I allow a nostalgic bias to creep in? But here’s Love Over Scotland, and I have no excuse for any bias, nostalgic or otherwise.
Many of the original cast reappear. Bertie is still the same compulsively truthful, precocious six-year-old who greatly endeared himself to me by setting fire to the Guardian while his father was still reading it. Thanks to his mother he’s even more fluent in Italian and a good enough saxophonist to get into a teenage orchestra, despite being 13 years too young for it, by his heart-stopping rendering of ‘As Time Goes By’. But he’s so ashamed of being seen with his mother in public he permits himself a lie by saying she’s not his mother but a lunatic only occasionally allowed out of her asylum. Bertie is also convinced his psychiatrist is mad because he published a book called Shattered to Pieces: Ego Dissolution in a Three-Year-Old-Tyrant, and you can’t get much madder than that. In Paris with the orchestra he gets left behind, but undaunted he takes his saxophone, goes busking and money pours in as the haunting notes of ‘As Time Goes By’ drift down the boulevards.
Bertie is a marvellous fantasy. Shy Matthew who still runs his art gallery is infinitely more real than Bertie but much less entertaining. Despite inheriting £4 million he still needs a good shaking. He should be more pleased, more changed, by inheriting such a sum but beyond a small shopping spree which includes a horrible cardigan made of distressed oatmeal he’s still the same diffident misfit. It’s true that he offers Big Lou money to save her café and he also decides he loves his assistant, Pat, who might just return it, liking what she saw when she chanced upon him naked after a shower. Domenica, the anthropologist, is in the Malacca Straits to study its pirate communities where she finds the buried remains of another anthropologist who mysteriously died. Fearing she will be raped and murdered herself, she still manages to shadow a pirate ship, only to find their bloodthirsty activity to be no more than making pirate CDs, mostly Italian tenors.
Writing about this book is like describing a large canvas by Breughel. You can pick out a few different characters, see what they look like and what they are doing, but it’s the bustle, the life on the move that matters. You get the impression not that McCall Smith dictates but that he writes at the same pace as he talks and without many backward glances. He’s an old softie at heart, of course, and the Edinburgh books are like bedtime stories for adults. He shies away from writing about awful people or ghastly situations, whereas in his Botswana books a stern morality prevails, however lightly express- ed. Edinburgh ways will never be the ways of Precious Ramotswe.
McCall Smith fears change, reverences tradition and worships love. At the welcome home dinner for Domenica, a painter with three gold teeth and a dog called Cyril with one gets up to recite one of his own poems and the book ends with its four last lines:
But love — that at least remains a mystery:
Why it is and how it comes about.
That love’s transforming breath, that gentle
Should blow its healing way across our lives.