Review: The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith's The Sunday Philosophy Club is a detective/mystery series much like The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in many respects, although set in Edinburgh.

In this book we have another female protagonist, Isabel Dalhousie, who is a philosopher and the editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics. She has a strong sense of morals and greatly allows this to influence her interactions with other people. In The Sunday Philosophy Club, this moralistic tendency causes her to involved herself in a mystery when she witnesses a man fall from the dress circle at an orchestra performance. In investigating the fall, she discovers possible links to insider trading at various Edinburgh financial institutions. Is this what has lead to the death of the falling man, or is the solution closer to home?

In The Sunday Philosophy Club McCall Smith delivered what most murder mysteries of this type deliver; an easy read and a mystery with a range of suspects for the reader to choose from. Having said that, The Sunday Philosophy Club was definitely on the dull side.

Isabel was far too particular for me to really connect with, or even to like very much. She came across as a stiff middle aged woman who thought that because she had studied philosophy she was on some sort of moral higher ground to the people around her.

For me, this quote embodies the boring person that Isabel is:
"She went into the larder and retrieved the ingredients for a risotto she would make for Cat and Toby. The recipe called for porcini mushrooms, and she had a supply of them, tied up in a muslin bag. Isabel took a handful of the dried fungus, savouring the unusual odour, shark and salty, so difficult to classify. Yeast extract? She would soak them for half an hour and then use the darkened liquid they produced to cook the rice."
Excuse me while I snooze.

The plot involving the falling man wasn't as compelling as it could have been. The solution to the puzzle wasn't revealed until the final few pages of the book and it came very suddenly and unexpectedly. Personally, I found it a bit of a let down. The solution made me feel as though McCall Smith had been wasting my time for most of the book.

In The Sunday Philosophy Club there was also a subplot involving Isabel's niece Cat and Cat's love life. I found this subplot a little strange. What was its purpose? What did it add to the book, if anything? Not much I would have to say.

I had a rather sad suspicion that McCall Smith wrote The Sunday Philosophy Club as a means of airing his own inner philosophical ponderings. Some of these ponderings weren't even particularly unique. For example, Isabel at one stage finds herself having a conversation with a random man on the street about why he is dressed the way he is, that is, in black clothes with holes in his pants, safety pins, lots of piercings etc. His response is something to the effect of he wants to avoid being labelled as normal or part of the mainstream. This leaves Isabel to question whether he isn't just rejecting one label for another and whether this defeats his purpose. Haven't we heard that before a million times? I have. Here's another example:

"The answer, surely, is that lying in general is wrong, but that some lies, carefully identified as the exception, will be permissible. There were, therefore, good lies and bad lies, with good lies being uttered for a benevolent reason (to protect the feelings of another, for example). If somebody asked one's opinion of a newly acquired – but tasteless – possession, for instance, and one gave an honest answer, then that could hurt feelings and deprive the other of the joy of ownership. So one lied, and praised it, which was surely the right thing to do. Or was it? Perhaps it was not as simple as that. If one became accustomed to lying in such circumstances, the line between truth and falsehood could become blurred."

To me, it's just thoughts that we have heard before, and that weren't particularly interesting to begin with.
My final though is in relation to the title of the book – The Sunday Philosophy Club. I have no idea where this title came from or how it even remotely relates to the story. In the book, Isabel does mention being the founding member of a group of people called the Sunday Philosophy Club – but that is as far as it goes. The group plays no role in the story and as far I could tell from the few mentions it received, the group of people had never even met each other. Why on earth it is the title I have no idea.

This review is perhaps a little harsher than I meant it to be. The book was harmless and easy to read. It just needed a more sympathetic protagonist, a little more action and a little less philosophical pondering to improve it.

There are more books in this series. I will read them if I even come across them for cheap at Vinnie's or a garage sale, but I couldn't honestly say that I will be rushing out to buy them.


4.5 / 8
Alright. Worth reading if you get the chance, but don't prioritise it. 

If you have read it, were you a little disappointed by this book? Are you sometimes disappointed when what seems like it has potential to be an interesting and fun read falls short of your expectations? What was the last book that did that for you?