Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Blither Age: Obfuscation and Fluff in Modern Business Communication

Our time has been dubbed the Information Age. Sometimes I think it should be called the Blither Age. In business and marketing communications, it has become acceptable, indeed expected, to use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Certain words are especially popular: leverage, paradigm, dynamic. They are sprinkled liberally throughout written and verbal communications with little regard to their meaning.

Why did this practice come about? It was probably borrowed from the scientific and academic world. Professors and scientists alike have long taken pride in their ability to write dense, incomprehensible prose filled with as many long, obscure words as possible. It is a way for them to prove their education and credentials—not everyone can write like that, after all. When business adopted this tradition, it chose a different set of long, obscure words, but retained the denseness and incomprehensibility, as well as the goal of demonstrating cleverness and credentials.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this goal. Who doesn't want to feel intelligent, and persuade other people that they are intelligent? However, one must examine the cost of this ego gratification, which may be quite high. Typical business and marketing communication, which is in fact poor communication, may result in a loss of productivity, increased difficulty in hiring qualified employees, and loss of business.

Meetings may be called to give employees information that will help them do their jobs. But this goal of providing employees with information may not be fulfilled as well as it could be if the speaker has another goal: to show everybody at the meeting how clever he is. Many an employee has drifted off into dreamland as the speaker droned on about leveraging paradigms. The more difficulty your employees have understanding you, the less they will be able to concentrate.

Jargon-filled speech is much longer than straightforward, clear speech, so its usage will extend the length of the meeting. Because of the lack of clarity, employees will need to ask more questions in order to fully understand the material. Either they will do so, which will make the meeting take even longer, or they will keep silent out of fear of appearing foolish, thus thwarting goal number one of the meeting: to communicate information.

Consequently, the speaker's goal of appearing intelligent through jargon-filled speech works at cross-purposes to the meeting goal, and wastes time. A waste of time means a waste of money, as the meeting drags on and runs into time that the employees could be using to do their jobs. You can see how poor communication in meetings can result in reduced productivity, but you may be wondering how it can get in the way of hiring employees.

Businesses employ classified advertisements when they wish to find an employee with precise qualifications. It would make sense, then, to state what is required in clear, precise language. But that is not always what happens.

A typical classified ad may say something like, "Seeking friendly, dynamic sales associates." How many of the words here tell the reader precisely what is being sought? "Friendly" and "sales associates" are fine words. Everybody has a pretty good idea of what they mean. But what about dynamic? What does it mean?

Consulting a dictionary, one learns that dynamic means, "relating to the forces in nature; relating to activity or things in movement; causal; forceful, very energetic" (Chambers Dictionary). Is this company looking for a sales associate who is a force of nature? Probably not. Dynamic also means something that moves. Is the company saying they won't hire a paraplegic or quadriplegic worker? That could get them in trouble. What about forceful? Possibly they want someone with an aggressive sales style. That seems the likeliest interpretation. Still, an aggressive sales style puts many customers off. That might not be it at all.

The point is that the reader of the advertisement has to guess, and then they have to decide whether they are dynamic, whatever on earth it means. The way "dynamic" is tossed around in classified ads these days, used to describe employees, products, companies and everything but the kitchen sink, I strongly suspect it means nothing at all. Yet there it is, in the ad, taking up space and costing money.

Yet this is a relatively benign example. The higher up you go in terms of prestige and pay scale, the more obscure the language. In a typical ad in the Careers section, we are told that among the responsibilities of the Director of Business Development is to "provide strategic direction in the planning and execution of innovative, integrated and results-oriented business development." This is fluff. Would you want your business development to be non-strategic? What does it mean for the business development to be integrated? Integrated with what? And what about results-oriented? Would you ever want your business development to be oriented towards something else, such as thumb-twiddling and money-wasting? Perhaps the development of classified ads like this one would qualify.

If all the words that mean nothing are subtracted from this phrase, we are left with, "plan and execute business development," or even "develop the business." Even this is vague. The prospective director is left with little notion of what is expected of him.

If you doubt that business jargon can result in the loss of business, you need only check out the web pages of a few software companies and attempt to figure out from the marketing lingo what it is that they or their products do. The task ranges from difficult to impossible. Instead of solid information on product function, software company web pages are full of writing about "leveraging technologies" to "deliver maximum value" as part of a "solutions-oriented approach." You can feel your brain throb as you read these words and attempt vainly to glean any sort of real meaning from them. If you're trying to figure out what the product does, it can be very frustrating. I have little doubt that many a prospective customer simply gives up, deciding that if they can't figure out what the product does, they probably don't need it.

The most ominous result of modern blither jargon may be the erosion, not just of the user's ability to communicate clearly but even to think clearly. I recently saw a Dragon's Den episode that vividly and poignantly demonstrated this inability to think as a consequence of marketingspeak. Click on the link to watch it yourself.

If you're not able to play the video, here's a brief summary.

Three would-be entrepreneurs pitch their web site idea, Whizof.biz, where would-be entrepreneurs (like themselves, presumably) would be able to get free, expert business communication advice from experienced entrepreneurs.

"Now, you're going to tell us how we make money, right?" says Kevin O'Leary.

"Yes," says Peter of Whizof.biz.

"When's that happen?"

"Right now."

But it doesn't happen. The Dragons ask increasingly detailed questions and get increasingly frustrated at getting waffle in response. Peter claims he can attract customers by offering 50% lower fees than competing companies, but Reg says they will attract the experienced entrepreneurs by offering higher payments. They can't explain how this is going to result in profits but only talk in vague terms: "If you've done well on the review and decide you want to do a rewrite, the cost of the rewrite is far less than would otherwise be the case."

Says Arlene Dickinson, "I usually don't get so frustrated but I'm listening really intently and I can't understand what you're telling me."

A short time later, Reg says, "We have in our minds at least a very clear image of how it will work."

But that's just it: they don't. The conversation as a whole suggests rather that everyone involved has a fuzzy image of how it will work, with all gaps filled in by magic, and the fuzzy language they use to talk about it protects them from becoming aware of the fact.

Needless to say, they get no offers. As Kevin points out at the end, they need their own product—badly.

Let us therefore bring back clarity in our speech, not only for the sake of relationships and good communication but for the sake of our higher brain functions.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

McCabe's: New Brunswick's finest ice cream is found by the highway in the middle of nowhere

McCabe's Ice Cream - Postcard
It probably seems out of proportion to get in the car and drive 40 minutes for ice cream. But this is no ordinary ice cream.

My husband found out about the place on a drive to Moncton a year or two ago, when he saw their road sign and popped in for some vanilla. He remembered it favorably enough to mention it to me one Friday evening in July, when the subject of ice cream came up. He thought it was about 20 minutes away.

My reaction was, hey, if it's that close, let's jump in the car and go! James demurred. It was evening. They might only be open in the daytime.

We tried to find out the telephone number, so we could call and find out their business hours. There was no entry under the Yellow Pages category Ice Cream & Frozen Desserts—Retail. We tried the Internet. There were some forum references to McCabe's, but no web page and no business hours. Likewise, yellowpages.ca had no entry for McCabe's. This business was unlisted! Whether this was some strange oversight or the place simply had no phone, there was no telling, and nothing to do but go there in person. But not that evening, especially since Google Maps' directions indicated that James' estimate of the distance was off by 100%: not 20 minutes, but 40.

It had to wait until Sunday. In the interest of pretending that this was not just an unusually long ice cream run but a whole day trip, we did some research on the area. Cambridge-Narrows is the closest town. Its tourism web page consists largely of a well-nigh unreadable scan of their brochure, 14 Things to Do in Cambridge-Narrows. At least it had a tourism web page. And a lake, so possibly there would be swimming. I threw a bathing suit, towel and cooler (in case they sold pints and we wanted to take some home) into the trunk, and off we went.

MCcabe's might not have a web presence, but their highway presence is more than adequate. The big sign at the side of the road is hard to miss, with its flashing yellow lights in the shape of an arrow. James pointed this out to encourage me, as I'd spent a substantial part of the drive fretting about the fact that it was Sunday, and things tend to close on Sunday in New Brunswick. Try going to Saint John, one of NB's biggest cities, on a Sunday. Almost nothing will be open. "How do I manage to forget this every time?" I'd lamented. "We'll have driven 40 minutes for nothing," etc., etc.

"Look, the arrow's flashing," said James. "That means they're open."

A further aid in guiding drivers is a red balloon, floating high in the sky above the spot.

After the sight of the giant sign and balloon, it felt incongruous to round the corner and see the tiny beige house. Outside, it didn't look like much. Inside, they offered a tiny selection of seven flavours. The menu was divided into regular flavours—vanilla, strawberry and chocolate—and the more expensive gourmet—coffee, mocha, raspberry and maple cream.

I mulled over the gourmet options but since none of them appeared to contain chunks of things, I chose that old standby, chocolate. James chose vanilla, the same flavour he'd had the last time.

I tasted my ice cream. OK, I thought, worth the trip. Maybe that's as much a comment on Fredericton ice cream parlours (or should I say ice cream parlour?) as it is on McCabe's. But my scoop was creamy with a rich chocolate flavour.

But I hadn't tasted nothin' yet. James offered me his vanilla, and then I knew I was in the presence of greatness. There was an explosion of vanilla bean on my tongue.

Honestly, I've never had a vanilla ice cream to equal McCabe's. Not Haagen Daaz. Not even Ben and Jerry's. And I still hadn't tasted nothin' yet. But more on that later.

The place is run by a smiling elderly lady with an accent that I couldn't place. I never found out her name, so I will take a chance and call her Mrs. McCabe. I asked Mrs. McCabe about pints. They don't sell them. If I wanted to take some home, my only option was two scoops in a styrofoam container.

I decided to get gourmet flavours, since we hadn't tried them yet: one scoop of mocha and one of maple. As Mrs. McCabe excavated our scoops, I asked about hours. McCabe's is open from 9:30 in the morning til 7 at night, seven days a week, from Victoria day to one week after Thanksgiving. Mrs. McCabe remarked that some of their customers buy a whole vat of ice cream, of the sort that the scoops come out of in the shop, so that they can have ice cream all winter. I have it on good authority from my ice-cream-fanatic father that those are three-gallon vats. One vat costs between 70 and 80 dollars, depending on the flavour, and requires a chest freezer. It's a special ice cream that inspires such devotion.

We also found out that they do not, in fact, have a phone number for the business. When I asked, Mrs. McCabe said with obvious reluctance that she could only give me her personal number. I could not in good conscience make such a request. They do have an email address though: homemade at auracom dot com.

Mrs. McCabe also wanted us to know that they had another location, on the road to Fundy Park. We'd actually come across that other address during our web searches, much to our confusion. This other location, she told us, was run by her husband. Here was a couple as devoted to their business as the vat-buyers are devoted to the ice cream. For their entire ice cream season, spring to fall, they get no days off, and they work miles apart from each other. I wonder what they do in the winter. It would be nice to imagine that they spend it taking a well-deserved vacation, but I fear it may not be the case.

Noting my interest in the business, Mrs. McCabe gave us a postcard gratis with our ice cream, though a sign on the counter said they were a dollar each. She also assured us that the ice cream is made from all natural ingredients. That was obvious. You can't get that intensity of flavour from anything but.

We put the ice cream in the cooler with a couple of cold packs, and set out to explore Cambridge-Narrows. We had lunch at Holiday Restaurant, a diner-type place just past the bridge. They do a pretty good hamburger and a surprisingly elegant salad, with a cucumber rose. Unfortunately, the dressing selection is the usual French-Ranch-Italian.

I asked the waitress if Cambridge-Narrows had a downtown. "Honey," she said, "this is it."

The centre of Cambridge-Narrows is a cross-roads. Signposts give the direction of places of note: the library, the post office, a winery. We visited the library, the wharf and the winery, Motts Landing, where they offer a delicious Chantilly.

It appears that the locals are not aware of the greatness of the ice cream in their midst. I mentioned to one woman that we'd come into the area for McCabe's ice cream. She got an odd look on her face. "I've wondered about that place," she said. "You drive by and that Cadillac is sitting there, and there are no other cars, and it makes me wonder if they really sell drugs or something." I assured her that there had been plenty of other people buying ice cream when we were in there; indeed, there was a lineup most of the time. "Well," she said, "that's good to know."

As we headed home, I noticed the time and began to fret. I'd read somewhere that a good cooler or thermos keeps its contents cold for three hours. More like four hours had elapsed. Were we going to end up with ice cream soup?

There was a fair quantity of soup, some of which had leaked into the cooler. As for what was still in the container, it maintained a small island of slushy solidity in the centre of a pool of melt—a testament, I thought, to the efficacy of my cooler, given how much time had elapsed. The slush even retained some degree of separation between the mocha and the maple, so we were able to taste them separately. Both were delicious. We put the ice cream in the freezer to harden it up again. Ultimately, though, we ate it all before that could happen. It was even better than the vanilla.

The McCabe's location that we visited is at exit 347 off the Trans-Canada highway, heading east. The other location is at exit 211 off Highway 114, heading to Fundy, as illustrated on the back of the postcard.Back of postcard

Friday, June 15, 2012

Recipe: Vivian's Dark Chocolate Orange Peel Bark

This recipe came about the day my hubby and I returned from grocery shopping with a bag of discounted oranges and a chocolate bar. I thought, why not put these two things together? So I did a search online for chocolate orange bark recipes, and discovered that the orange peel was invariably candied through the use of white sugar. Being me, I couldn't help but marvel at the oddness of adding outside sugar to a substance that surrounds a lot of naturally-occurring sugars and vitamins. So I decided to see what would happen if I used the juice from the orange instead of sugar and water. What happened? Deliciousness, that's what happened.

Ingredients:
  • 100 grams dark chocolate, preferably 60-80%
  • 1 orange

Wash the orange, cut in half and juice. We have one of those manual orange juicers where you impale the orange half on a conical thing. If you don't have a juicer, you might try squeezing by hand and/or with the back of a spoon, but try not to mess up the peel too much, because you're going to need it.

Put the juice aside and cut the spent orange halves into segments. Remove the squished pulp. It's not used in the recipe, but it's still good eating. Now lay each segment zest-side down and slice away the pith with a paring knife or other small, non-serrated knife. Watch the fingers. (If you don't know, the zest is the orange stuff on the outer part of the peel and the pith is the yellowy, bitter stuff on the inner part of the peel.)

Throw away the pith and slice the zest into little strips, about an eight of an inch thick. Put the zest strips into a saucepan with the juice from the orange and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is almost boiled away, stirring often. The zest will be coated with a sort of sticky juice reduction. Scrape it out of the saucepan and put it on a plate. I left it for a couple of hours in the fridge to dry out, but really I don't know how much difference this made; it never got completely dry. So skip this step if you don't have time, in which case you don't even have to turn off the burner. But you'll probably want to use a clean saucepan for the next step. Chocolate changes its texture if you get liquid into it when it's melted.

In the clean saucepan (or in the orange-juicy saucepan if you couldn't care less about your chocolate's texture—I mean, it's chocolate, right?) melt the dark chocolate over low heat. The traditional way to do this is with a double-boiler, to prevent burning. I don't have a double-boiler, so I just use the lowest setting on my electric stove. If you have a gas stove, I suppose you might not be able to get away with this. And if it's a warm day, leaving the chocolate out in the sun for a while might also be an option.

Use a rubber or silicone spatula to scrape the melted chocolate out onto a cookie sheet, aluminum pie plate, or something else flexible. (If it hardens on something rigid, like a plate, you may have trouble detaching it.) Finally, sprinkle the juicy orange peel over top. Oh sure, you could have just stirred the peel into the chocolate, the way you would with almonds if making an almond bark, but the orange peel is such a pretty colour, especially against the dark background of the chocolate, that that would be a shame. This way, you can listen to your friends ooh and ah over the beauty of your candy. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. It's a nice thing to bring to dinner parties. Or you can stay home and eat it all yourself, which is the option my husband and I chose.

Sorry I don't have a picture. It didn't last that long. I'll see about taking one next time I make this.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Latest Trend in Blogging: Tiny Paragraphs

What's with these tiny paragraphs I'm seeing in blog posts lately?

You know what I mean. Short sentences. And each one a paragraph.

I hate it.

It's not snappy. It's annoying and hard to read.

And let's not forget choppy.

I've seen two offenders in just one day: this post at Sebastian Marshall's blog and every single post at Inkably.

I suppose they might have learned it in journalism school.

But even journalists aren't this bad.

Usually.

So I think it's a web thing.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Everyday Things That Suck: Appliances That Glow Blue

Welcome to the first installment in my new blog series: Everyday Things That Suck. Its purpose is to round up various everyday items and gadgets, things that a lot of people think are just fine or even terrific, and explain why those items, in fact, suck. In the grand scheme of things, this post and others like it are a part of my ongoing doomed effort to change the world through judicious mockery, into something more to my liking.

My husband recently built his own desktop computer. To do this, he had to purchase a number of components, the largest of which was the case. It comes with lights, of course, that let you know when it's powered up. Blue lights, as it happens. One of those lights shines through the fan and the front grille, which diffuses it into a large blue glow.

My husband and I have had a number of discussions about that glow, because I hate it. I harbour an intense and irrational hatred for all appliances that glow blue, and while that may sound a tad nuts, and you may be excused in thinking I could use a little professional help, I believe I have come by it honestly.

Years ago, my mother bought combination clock radio and CD player. I think it's a Sony. It must have looked innocent enough in the store. Come nightfall, however, the blue glow it emits, which is barely noticeable during the day, becomes a two-foot halo that renders any bedroom hostile to the act of sleep.

Honestly, Sony. Where you think people put clock radios? They put them in the bedroom—you know, the place where they sleep. That's why clock radios come with alarms. Where else would you put one? The garage? And you choose to make yours do double duty as a light-pollution machine. Oh, hurrah, Sony. Hurrah.

For many years, the Blue Halo From Hell lived in my parents' spare bedroom. When I would come to visit, that was where I would stay, and one of my first acts on entering the room, usually before unpacking the suitcase, was to unplug the demon device. There was no other way I could sleep with that thing in the room.

That little glowing monstrosity primed me to hate glowing appliances. Since then, the number of appliances that glow, usually blue, has increased exponentially. Why blue, by the way? Is it in any way related to the blue liquid that gets poured onto diapers and sanitary pads in TV ads? In the world of consumer products, blue seems to be the traditional default colour. I know that you can also get computer desktop cases that glow red, but maybe that's because building your own computer is seen as a macho activity, typically engaged in by guys who like to play violent games, and red, being the colour of blood, is a good macho colour. Most other appliances glow blue.

There are those new single-serving coffee makers, by Keurig and other companies. There are a lot of good reasons to hate these machines, which are enjoying an unfortunate surge of popularity right now. They encourage profligate waste, and their concept is basically stupid.

Consider the coffee-filled plastic cup or "k-cup" that goes into the machine. Consider what happens to it after your coffee is made. What are you going to do with it? Other plastic containers have a hope of being recycled. Since these containers are full of wet, used coffee, the only place they're going is into a garbage can, along with their biodegradable, compostable contents. And they're going into garbage cans in ever-greater numbers as these machines pop up in coffee shops and convenience stores everywhere. In an increasing number of coffee shops, they're your only option for decaf.

As for the stupidity of the concept, I think the Keurig TV ad speaks for itself.* A couple prepares coffee in their kitchen. It's not a single person in his or her kitchen, of course. That would make more sense, but it might also suggest loneliness. Keurig doesn't want its product associated with loneliness, so it has to have a couple in the kitchen, and guess what? They can't drink their coffee together because they can only make one cup at a time. How idiotic is that? If they had a traditional brewing machine or French press, they could drink their coffee together. But no, better they should each make one coffee at a time and pretend that's convenient so that Keurig can make lots of money and the couple can produce even more garbage than they were before, which was probably plenty. (By the way, Canada produces more garbage per capita than any other country in the world. As Margaret Atwood once said, "At least we're number one in something." Bring on the k-cups!)

And on top of all this, the machines glow blue. Just in case they weren't wasteful enough to begin with.

Smart phones also glow blue, which seems appropriate, given that they too can be linked to loneliness. While staying in Halifax recently, I saw a sad sight in the hotel elevator. A couple got on. The man, oblivious to his surroundings, stared into the blue glow of his smart phone and ran his fingers over the touch screen, again and again. The woman also held a blue-glowing smart phone, but looked less interested in it. Her frequent glances round indicated she might have liked to have a conversation, if she'd had a non-oblivious companion. But she didn't, so she kept unenthusiastically turning back to her little blue screen. Arguably, the more we use machines that are supposed to connect us to other people and help us communicate, the more alone we are. That's certainly what I witnessed on that elevator.

Come to think of it, I guess the couple from the Keurig ad doesn't need to drink coffee together. They're probably both buried in their smart phones anyway.

Then there's a product I saw in a Canadian Tire flyer: the NOMA vertical power bar. According to the copy, it automatically turns outlets on and off "to prevent phantom power consumption." I'm assuming this refers to appliances that draw power all the time, not just when they're in use. TVs do this, so they can be ready to flick on at a moment's notice. It only takes about five seconds for a modern TV set to warm up from a cold state, but apparently that's too much for the modern on-the-go (or on-the-couch) consumer. As well, lots of things with glowing displays, like microwaves, draw power constantly. Therefore, a power bar can help you save electricity.

But there's a catch. The NOMA vertical power bar helpfully emits a blue glow at all times, so that the power you saved by having a power bar can be offset by the power required to make the glow. Thanks NOMA!

Oh, I almost forgot. I recently used an automatic hand dryer in a public washroom, and it beamed a circle of blue light onto my hands. Yeah, that's useful. After all, you never know when some poor soul with numb hands, possibly a diabetic, will use the public washroom, and if they can't feel the warm air, they need some other way to know where to hold their hands for maximum drying efficacy. And maybe it's not enough to simply look at which way the nozzle is pointing, because their eyesight could be going too. Certainly, accessible public washrooms is a laudable goal, and that must be the reason for the blue circle of light, because what other purpose could it possibly serve? Other than wasting power?

Back to our blue-glowing desktop computer. (Great Spoonerism opportunity by the way. I almost typed "glue blowing," which would be a different matter. I'm not sure what kind of matter, but different.) My husband assured me that the extra power usage is minimal because the blue glow comes from LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes), which use very little power. I don't really care. I find it annoying, period. I don't need the whole friggin' inside of my house to glow like some kind of complementary-colour bordello.

I got vindication for my position when we started using the computer to watch The Daily Show and Colbert Report. We have the computer monitor in the middle of the desk and the desktop off to the right side. I have found that if I sit to the right, I am distracted by the blue glow taking up the right quarter of my visual field. When you're trying to watch a video on the computer, it's pretty annoying. So now my husband always has to sit on the right while I sit on the left, in front of the inoffensive flatbed scanner, which glows quite a lot when it is scanning but never when it isn't, bless it. Perhaps that's because it's an old scanner and dates back to before the Great Blue Glow Age (GBGA, for short).

You see? It's not just a question of aesthetics. Those blue glows lighting up all over the "developed" world can cause genuine problems, from sleep deprivation to distraction. I rest my case. Blue-glowing appliances suck. Thank you.


* If you want to see the Keurig ad, it's available on YouTube. I'm not providing a link because I want to avoid encouraging anybody to buy these machines. Back

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Sunday Philosophy Club: a Fatally-Flawed, Stupid Novel [SPOILERS]

The Sunday Philosophy Club (Sunday Philosophy Club, #1)The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Do you like a good mystery? Then you'll certainly want to read something else. Perhaps one of Alexander McCall Smith's earlier works. I like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, for its unconventional setting (how many white genre writers are setting their novels in Africa?) and its lack of murders. The sequel is pretty good too, and perhaps even the one after that, but then things start to go downhill. That's the thing about Smith: he's uneven. Also, he has an unfortunate tendency to moralize ramblingly. To wit:

Good manners depended on paying moral attention to others; it required one treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs... How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affectation, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. [And on and on...]

That's a quote from The Sunday Philosophy Club.* Tiresome, isn't it? There are several passages like it. But that's not the reason you shouldn't read the book. If that were its only flaw, one might overlook it. The real problem is that the story doesn't make sense.

Isabel, the editor of a scholarly review on ethical philosophy, witnesses the death of a young man as he falls from the highest balcony or "gods" of an opera house. She decides to investigate. The novel intertwines the mystery of Mark's death with two other threads: relationships and their difficulties, and ethics, particularly truth-telling and lies.

The rest of this review is a spoiler, but don't let that bother you. We're talking about a story that doesn't make sense. What's the point of trying to avoid spoiling it? It was spoiled from the get-go. Smith spoiled it when he wrote the ending.

For a while, Isabel is led to believe that Mark's murder was related to insider trading. Though this is the avenue she spends most of the book pursuing, it turns out to be one big red herring. One of the first people Isabel talks to, Mark's roommate Neil, turns out to have been the killer all the time. And here's where things get altogether nonsensical. At the end of the book, Neil, cornered, admits that it was in fact he who elbowed Mark off the balcony. But it was an accident, he claims. He was jealous of Mark's relationship with their common roommate, Hen and gave him a little elbow, not meaning to hurt him and certainly not to kill him. But it unbalanced Mark and he plunged to his death.

Aided by her ever-harped-upon, frequently tediously self-congratulatory philosophy, Isabel decided he is telling the truth, and that it would be wrong to punish him.

Let's leave aside the hubris, worthy of noted ethical philosopher Captain Kirk, of deciding without benefit of trial which killers do and don't deserve to be punished. There's a bigger problem than that. Did Isabel forget who set her on that wild-goose chase after the insider-trading red herring in the first place? It was Neil himself. He came to Isabel because, allegedly, he hadn't told her everything and it was weighing on his conscience. Mark, he said, had info about insider trading, had been subtly threatened and feared for his safety. The suggestion was that Mark might have been done in by one of those insider traders or someone working on their behalf. And this is coming from the person who knew exactly what had killed Mark, because he himself had.

Neil's is the worst sort of lie, a cowardly coverup. Neil knew that Isabel was investigating the murder and felt the need to steer her in the wrong direction, away from himself and the truth. How can she still see him as an innocent? She would have to be an imbecile to do so. Such a lie, such a deliberate attempt to confuse and foil the investigation, casts doubt even upon his claim that the killing was an accident.

How did Smith screw up this story so badly? My guess would be that he made it up as he went along. Many novelists work this way, not knowing where the novel is going until they get there. Perhaps he fiddled with the insider trading idea, decided well into the novel that he didn't want to end that way, then decided to revisit an earlier minor character and make him the murderer. Having done so, he wove all the business of relationships and jealousy throughout the novel to have that consistent theme.

Neatly done, as long as you forget all about Neil's earlier visit to Isabel and what he knew that the time, which makes the whole story fall apart into egregious nonsense. A pity, but perhaps a writer who has attained so much success and critical acclaim may forget to be careful. He may forget that he is capable of making mistakes, that even he, the great McCall Smith, may leave plot holes that call for stitching up. I wonder if Isabel with all her philosophizing would have anything to say about that. Would she conclude that Smith had failed his readership on philosophical, moral grounds? Based on her moralizing in the novel itself, I think she might have.


* Note that similar passages can be found in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Back