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Onyx reviews: The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith

In the seventh book in the "Sunday Philosophy Club" series, the board of governors of a boys' school seeks Isabel Dalhousie's help in vetting possible replacements for their principal, who is taking up a post in Singapore (much to his wife's chagrin). The board has reduced the applicants to a shortlist of three; however, someone sent an anonymous letter saying that one of the men would cause the school embarrassment if hired. The note doesn't specify the nature of the dark secret, or to which candidate it refers. Would Isabel mind discretely looking into the pasts of the three men, none of whom know they're on the short list?

Isabel isn't a detective, but she has never turned down a direct request for help, even though she has numerous other demands on her time. Her editorial position at the Review of Applied Ethics is fraught with responsibilities that transcend evaluating articles submitted for publication. For example, one her nemeses volunteered to review a book written by one of his friends. If she had her way, Isabel wouldn't have sent the book out for review at all (especially since it dismisses her scholarship in a footnote), and she definitely wouldn't have sent it to Professor Lettuce, so she finds herself in an awkward position. Any move she makes has potential repercussions within the close-knit community of ethicists.

Isabel knows about secrets. She turns up dirt on everyone, including the people who hired her and the other staff members at the school. She wonders whether the anonymous note was meant to disrupt the application of a specific candidate or to throw a monkey wrench into the hiring process in general.

Scotland being a relatively small city, Isabel's inquiry inevitably brings her into contact with people who are somehow connected with the boys' school. She meets a cousin of one of the candidates at a spiritualist meeting. One of the other men turns out to be her niece Cat's current boyfriend (Cat runs a local delicatessen where Isabel occasionally helps out, and has a different boyfriend in each book). The investigation also facilitates a nice scene between Isabel and the near-destitute owner of a painting that features one of Isabel's ancestors.

Isabel also has problems in her relationship with her fiancÚ, with whom she has a two-year-old son. Jamie, a bassoonist, used to date Cat. A fellow musician, cellist Prue, tells him she has a fatal illness and hasn't long to live, using her fragile condition to extort Jamie into spending time with her. The epitome of the sensitive man, Jamie doesn't know how to deflect her advances without hurting her feelings. His secretive behavior gives Isabel—who tends to be insecure about being with a much younger man—cause to doubt his faithfulness, and her suspicions aren't allayed when he suddenly suggests they get married soon.

The "cases" she takes take on, as with her counterpart Mma Ramotswe, heroine of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, aren't criminal, as a rule, and their resolutions rely more on knowledge of human nature than any forensic or legal insight. The primary difference between the two series is setting: one takes place in Edinburgh and the other in Botswana. Though the traditions and the cultures are different, the idea is much the same. (Both women also happen to have opinionated assistants named Grace.)

One of the most interesting facets of the Isabel Dalhousie books is her sophisticated thought process. Any time she thinks something unflattering about someone else (or about herself), she looks at the problem from every angle and eventually works her away around to a logical and rational resolution to her moral or ethical quandary. She frequently holds full-scale debates with herself. Along the way, readers learn something about her character and about humanity in general.

Every plot thread doesn't get neatly wrapped up (the question of one of the legitimacy of one of the candidates' credentials is unresolved, for example), but life can be like that. Messy, full of misconceptions and thoughtless acts. Isabel herself isn't above acting rashly, and it says a lot about her thoughts about her science that in times of doubt she turns to an Edinburgh taxi driver for advice.


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