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Onyx reviews: The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall
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
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
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
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