'The Quiet Side of Passion' is another McCall Smith tale of the triumph of good

The Quiet Side of Passion By Alexander McCall Smith Pantheon Books 277 pp.
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The 11th book in the 'Isabel Dalhousie' series is a murderless mystery, where thinking almost entirely trumps violence, threats, and conniving.

The Quiet Side of Passion is the 11th book in Alexander McCall Smith's "Isabel Dalhousie" series, but it’s a fine place to jump in since it stands on its own. Readers of the first 10 will no doubt have more to smile about, but there’s plenty of delight here for a first-timer.

This book luxuriates in interesting conversations, character quirks, mystery, danger, and most of all, thinking. It’s a murderless mystery, where thinking almost entirely trumps violence, threats, and conniving. The appeal of the book, like McCall Smith’s famous “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, is that a wise woman deals decisively with ne’er-do-wells from a principled, non-violent perspective.

Isabel Dalhousie is described as “philosopher, wife, mother, editor.” She edits the Review of Applied Ethics and applies ethics in private life as well, thinking philosophically and diligently through the rights and wrongs of every situation. There are plenty of wrongs to sort out. Professor Lettuce, an unethical philosopher, bullies her into giving a talk to support his foundation. Another woman is being supported by the father of a child born to her out of wedlock – if he is the father. Isabel thinks not. She considers these problems in a learned but delightful stream of consciousness. She is, above all, a gentle, civic-minded person.

She’s also an accomplished daydreamer. Early on, she remembers her favorite part of a currently out-of-favor children’s book, when tigers pursuing the main character turn to butter. She loves that a fearful threat melts into a pantry staple. She imagines having a “butter list” instead of an enemies list. She has some enemies. Professor Lettuce plots to get access to the review. The probable real father of the child born out of wedlock threatens her. She also survives a “me too” experience.

Her husband Jamie, “bassoonist, father, occasional composer, incidental tennis player, and in the view of virtually every woman who ever met him, the perfect man,” their two young sons, and a doughty Scottish housekeeper constitute a peaceful Edinburgh household in the midst of this world of misdeeds and misalliances. Jamie is perfect for Isabel. He worries about her excursions into other people’s business, is used to her flights of fancy, and holds up his end in their many erudite chats. At one point, Isabel offers their son Charlie a piece of chocolate cake after a spaghetti dinner. Overindulgence in carbohydrates is a modern sin, she posits (to herself.) Her son is looking at her expectantly but she is lost in thought, wondering if ascetic, low-carb saints would overindulge in heaven.

 “Mummy’s thinking,” says Jamie, “That’s what she does, you see. I’ll get the chocolate cake.” He also cooked the spaghetti dinner. The perfect man.

Isabel can be too thoughtful. It’s tempting to skip a “Mummy’s thinking” chapter as the plot threads begin to twist together. This is a credit to McCall Smith’s knack of weaving a compelling story out of seemingly random events. Soon Isabel has unraveled unsavory schemes, confronted knaves, been aided by a surprising hero, and sent others packing. She has probably prevented worse crimes, Jamie points out. But she has to sit up late and consider the collateral effect she has had as lives take sharp corrective turns. She is never misses a chance to apply ethics.

What holds the book together is Isabel and Jamie’s marriage, which seems to be one long, witty conversation between perfect foils. When they go out to lunch, Isabel watches three different women eyeing her husband. “Isabel was used to this; Jamie turned heads – he had always done so, and, most significantly, was quite unaware of the fact. It did not displease her, although she did not enjoy the envy that she sometimes saw in the eyes of other women when they realized that this extraordinarily good-looking young man was with her – not just having lunch with her, but with her.” 

In another novel this would be foreboding. The trusting wife would be about to be shown up as clueless, no match for those envious ladies. But McCall Smith has managed to make the old-fashioned virtue of fidelity more compelling than infidelity, which is so often the engine of modern novels. Likewise, Isabel’s clear-eyed sense of right and wrong might seem to be a relic of an earlier age. But she triumphs over some modern crimes.

At the end, Jamie plays and sings a Jacobean love song to her, quietly, “Because real passion is usually quiet,” he says, which perfectly sums up this book.

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