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Onyx reviews: The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith

Although several of his works hang in the Louvre, Poussin may not be a name that's familiar to everyone, but to Isabel Dalhousie—and indeed to many of Alexander McCall Smith's characters—he is an important artist. One of his paintings, ultimately destined for the National Gallery but until recently in private hands, is the focus of the latest in the ninth entry in the series.

The painting was stolen from the estate of Duncan Munrowe. Many other valuable works were left behind, so it's clear that the thieves were interested in just this work. Is the motive financial, or is someone upset by the fact that this heirloom is to be donated to Scotland? On the recommendation of a mutual acquaintance, Munrowe asks Isabel—who has a reputation around Edinbugh for sticking her nose in other people's business—if she will help him decide whether to negotiate with the thieves, who wish to return the painting for a "reward," a thinly veiled cover for holding the artwork for ransom. The reward will be paid by the insurers, since it is less than the value of the painting.

The dilemma plunges Isabel squarely into the middle of a moral conundrum. The go-between for the thieves is a lawyer who isn't herself a criminal—and, of course, lawyers act on behalf of criminals as a matter of business—but this particular scenario seems beyond the pale. The more Isabel talks to the Munrowes and those who know them, learning all of the family's problems and dysfunctions, the more suspicious she becomes that this may be an inside job.

At home, Isabel is faced with another dilemma when she and her husband discover that Grace, their nanny, has been tutoring their three-year-old son Charlie in mathematics. They feel that math is something that should be taught by professional instructors so that children don't learn things the wrong way and end up trapped in incorrect thinking for the rest of their lives. The problem is that Grace (who is in many ways reminiscent of Grace Makutsi from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series) doesn't handle criticism well, so it's a more sensitive matter than one might expect. Isabel also provides support for a  young man who works for her niece as he struggles with a delicate issue that has been making him miserable.

As with all of McCall Smith's books, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds is a charming, light read. The stakes are higher than usual because the painting is worth millions, and Isabel and Munrowe do come face to face with the robbers at one point in a harrowing scene, but for the most part the risks and suspense are light. Isabel has a tendency to wax philosophical, and these ruminations about what things a person is morally responsible to do can be distracting and occasionally over-long, but it is interesting to see her mind at work as she grapples with philosophical issues that many people don't think about often.

Though this is nominally a crime novel, it's not really a detective novel. Isabel doesn't present herself as a Miss Marple or a Sherlock Holmes. She might best be described as a well-meaning busybody, and her interferences generally work out for the best for all involved—sometimes even for the miscreants. The resolution of the crime in this book is handled in an uncharacteristically ambiguous fashion. By the end, all is right with the world, but questions remain.

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