“The Sunday Philosophy Club” by Alexander McCall Smith

"The Sunday Philosophy Club" by Alexander McCall Smith The back cover copy introduces us to Isabel Dalhousie: middle-aged spinster who’s “too inquisitive”…and when she witnesses a young man fall to his death from the balcony of the concert hall, she wonders if there’s more to it?!

Then we open the book, and…turns out she’s actually a fourteen-year-old with ADHD…and has the detective method of a spring-addled squirrel.

Harsh? Let me elaborate on The Sunday Philosophy Club…which, incidentally, features no over-arching philosophy, no club whatsoever, and about as much detective content as those gummy vitamins contain sugar.

Our “Valiant” Heroine

Isabel Dalhousie is middle-aged, independently wealthy, and single. On a routine night at the orchestra, she’s lingering after the performance to chat with friends, and a “gorgeous” young man plummets from the balcony to his death.

She gives a statement to the police, pokes her nose up in the balcony to see just how low the railing really is, spots a suspicious character who doesn’t want her nosing around, and then —

Goes home, does her cross-word, chats with her niece Cat about Cat’s love life, and finally (after much philosophical soul-searching) decides that she has a responsibility to investigate this matter because, since she actually saw the laddie fall, she has a “human connection” with him (as the last person he saw on earth, y’know).

Also because she just wants to.

Miss Marple would have interviewed all the policemen involved, gotten a bead on the victim’s home life, found out who stood to gain by his untimely death, and discovered something unexpected about the corpse by this time.

*breathe* The cover featured a bright, cheerful window full of flowers. It’s clearly a “cozy mystery,” not the usual “cleverly question suspects and break alibis while the bodies pile up” type of mystery I like… Let’s manage expectations and see where the character is going —

University-level philosophy in the head of an adolescent squirrel.

Harsh. I know. But when you start skimming the pages because of the non-stop tangents about random philosophers and philosophies that barely relate to the conversation at hand, you might come away a little frustrated.

I love discussing world-view and philosophies of life! I should eat this stuff up!

But – as my own mother concurred, and so eloquently put it – poor Isabel is like a ditzy pre-teen.

First, what she does right:

  • She interviews the fall-victim’s flat-mates (“roommates” in America).
  • She talks to the victim’s supervisor at work (after bumping into him randomly, but at least she follows up on the opportunity).
  • She contrives to arrange a meeting to subtly question a suspect.
  • She spends brain-power actually making theories about the young man’s death and lining up possible suspects and motives.

Now…what she does wrong:

  • Spends large chunks of the book worried about Cat’s love life. A sub-plot is FINE, but:
    • she jumps to conclusions about Cat’s latest boyfriend because of his pink corduroy pants,
    • she angsts at GREAT LENGTH about whether it’s moral for her to get involved in Cat’s love life –
    • (specifically whether she should tell Cat that she saw the boyfriend with another girl…or whether it’s her business);
    • with this much angst, she should be in Twilight.
  • While she does actually have conversations with people involved with the dead man, she jumps to conclusions based on single-person testimonies.
  • Sums people up based on their appearance with what I can only assume is her “woman’s intuition” (and she’s usually right about their character, if not their motives! So go figure).
  • Stops in the middle of conversations to day-dream about this paper she read once about a tangentially related moral question. Seriously, she has the attention span of a chipmunk.

She does eventually find the answer to the young man’s death…on the very last page. But it certainly feels more like she stumbled onto it than that she had a clear game-plan from the beginning.

I know I’m brutal. But when the narrative centers in Isabel’s head (and when her stream-of-consciousness resembles an angsty adolescent trying to sound pretentious), it makes the whole book suffer.

Philosophy = We Don’t Know Anything!

“The wisest man understands that he understands nothing.”

Poor Isabel. She left home to get a good education, majored in Philosophy (because she wanted to, and liked it), fell for a radical professor, slept with him, married him, then found out he had no qualms about sleeping with students.

Who could have seen this coming.

Now she’s the editor of a philosophy journal, heads a non-existent “Sunday Philosophy Club” (she says she can’t get the members to assemble, but I’ll believe it when I see it), and still has feelings for her unfaithful, totally self-absorbed, cynical ex…because –

Actually there is no reason for that. It impacts the narrative in no way whatsoever, and just reinforces the image of Isabel as an un-matured, angsty old girl who doesn’t know how to have her own thoughts.

My opinion might be unfairly skewed because I had just finished re-reading Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers’ masterpiece of mingling world-view, crime, and a philosophical thesis all together.

Sayers’ work explores one broad, over-arching question: “What is women’s place in society…and can we use both our hearts and our heads?”

Every character, every sub-plot, every detour on the path to solving the mystery feeds into this central question. In fact, it is the heroine sleuth’s wrestling with this question that distracts her from the solution to the mystery-plot…and, indeed, the entire motive of the crime is wrapped up in an answer to the thesis question.

Though the novel might feel sprawling and leisurely, in actuality every conversation, every side-quest feeds into the central premise being explored.

Then we have Sunday Philosophy Club.

Isabel spends a lot of time reading papers submitted for the journal (since she’s an editor, after all…She also does a cross-word puzzle every morning, and no, it never holds the clue to the dead guy).

Perhaps the whole of my problem can be illustrated with the one paper I remember: the “Fat is Sin” paper.

Isabel reads a paper that insists, “People all over the world are hungry and starving. Being fat is a sign that you not only have enough to eat, but more than you need. Therefore, to be fat means you don’t care about the people starving around the world.”

Isabel grumbles at the paper, goes into the kitchen for a piece of cake, and is struck with guilt. She decides that, while she isn’t necessarily convinced by the author of the paper, she shouldn’t eat this piece of cake.

And therein lies the whole of the problem.

It’s not just that this has absolutely nothing to do with the story problem on the back cover (a young man is dead, dudes).

It’s not even that this fictional philosophy paper is idiotic (how is me not eating cake here going to transfer any food into the mouths of hungry children there?).

Nor is the issue that Isabel is so unmoored in her moral understanding that a ridiculous, short-sighted paper like this makes her change her behavior (and angst about it).

No…the issue is the dramatic intertwining of all these problems.

If you were to pin down a central thematic question for Sunday Philosophy Club, it would probably be:

Should you interfere in the affairs of others?

And the answer provided by Isabel (and her book) is:

Absolutely you have a moral obligation if you feel like it but it’s really subjective maybe this whole thing wasn’t a good idea and it’s complicated depends on the case.

That’s some pretty swampy situational ethics…which isn’t really an answer at all.

The Sex Part

No, there are no sex scenes. (Although we/Isabel glimpse(s) a naked man, Cat has a physical relationship with her current boyfriend/fiancé, and Isabel obviously shared a bed with her professor-crush, even before they married.)

“Cozy mystery.” Romance sub-plots are common. Breathe…manage expectations…

I think the worst I can say about the sexual parts of this book is the immaturity and pointlessness of it.

Isabel tells herself she would totally take her ex back if he came begging forgiveness (even though he skipped the continent with another woman, and has probably moved on from that one by now).

Cat has serial boyfriends, and apparently gets physical with all of them.

One of Cat’s exes is still on good terms with Isabel, who likes him and wishes they’d get back together…and then she decides half of that is she kinda has a crush on him and I got REALLY nervous.

Isabel interviews the dead man’s roommates (a boy and a girl), and discovers the two of them are bed-mates as well as apartment-mates. Then the boy admits he “misses” their late friend, and Isabel immediately concludes that he’s gay (and bi!).

And the point?

Except for the last one (SPOILER: the two guys had an argument and one “accidentally” got shoved over the railing), these have nothing to do with the supposed plot of the back cover.

I guess they feed into the thematic question (should you interfere in other people’s lives AKA do you have a moral obligation to tell your niece when her boyfriend has another girl, etc.) but in the end they all feel empty.

Like Isabel’s life. Lots of introspection…lots of moral pretentiousness and scatter-brained references to Such-and-Such-Thinker…lots of feeling-based, circumstance-based theorizing about morality…cups of tea and high-society stuff with art showings and musical snobbery…the cross-word puzzle every morning and these philosophy papers and on and on…

And on the last page, she’s just as morally lost and intellectually ungrounded as she was on the first page!

Guys…Lord Peter Wimsey had way more fun being an independently wealthy culture snob!

He also had great brains, and investigated murders and suspicious happenings because he liked it! He did on occasion worry that poking his nose into things did more harm than good (stirring up the murderer to silence witnesses and such), but he didn’t suffer from this soul-crushing dithering.

Even Miss Marple (elderly spinster sleuth courtesy of Agatha Christie) is intelligent, humble, yet self-assured, sharp-eyed, and witty enough to squeeze information out of unsuspecting witnesses. She’s also able to keep her mind on what actually matters (even when she distracts her suspects with apparently-tangential conversation).

Isabel Dalhousie staggers along in a self-satisfied fog, beset from time to time by nebulous questions of moral right-and-wrong, but never holding on to one idea long enough to emerge with any kind of character depth.

Like the book’s blasé approach to sex, her totally situational approach to ethics might be a product of her author’s time…but that doesn’t make it any less swampy. A detective needs something firmer to stand on if she wants to investigate mysteries.

Too Long…Didn’t (Completely) Read

While Isabel does solve the mystery (as far as we know) she certainly doesn’t do it with a grand, over-arching plan of investigation. She stumbles on one piece, jumps to conclusions a couple times, uses her “woman’s intuition” to assess the character of people based on impressions, and basically feels like she stumbles onto the solution without really applying her mind to it.

So, yes, I started skimming when the rambling got too bad. Sue me. There are too many good books out there to read.

Wish Isabel would check out some of them…


The Sunday Philosophy Club is available on Amazon.

But so are Unnatural Death, The Body in the Library, and The Innocence of Father Brown, if you want a detective without ADHD.

Savage? Probably. Life’s too short to beat around the bush.

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