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

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