Though I truly enjoyed all three of these books, my favorite was THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD which is Book Two in Alexander McCall Smith's charming Corduroy Mansions series. I admit that a Pimlico Terrier named Freddie de la Hay had a lot to do with it. I'm a sucker for dogs with more than one name - provided the author delivers and the book isn't just about dogs with cutesy names doing cutesy things. Which this isn't. (Didn't Steve Martin once have a cat named Dr. Johnson? I've always wondered what you'd call an animal with that sort of moniker. I mean, do you just call him Doc for short? Alas, my mind is wandering.)
An aside: I never did read the first book in the Corduroy Mansions series, but I'm not always a stickler for reading these things in order unless it's an absolute imperative. (Maybe one of these days I'll do a post on series that must, absolutely MUST be read in order.)
Another aside: I am willing to admit (but not without misgivings) that Alexander McCall Smith's stories do fall under the category of cozy even if some might not like the term. My feeling is, think up something else to call it if that makes you feel better.
Nothing wrong with a good cozy far as I'm concerned even if we're not exactly sure what another reader might or might not consider 'cozy'. Here's my consideration: A book is cozy when it has a certain familiar warmth to it - a vague something we instinctively recognize (or think we do) which, even if intangible, makes the reader respond in a certain specified way - sort of like Pavlov's dog. The response must be instant - either good or bad. More than any other style of book it's the old 'I know it when I see it' routine transposed to 'I know it when I read it'. It all depends on your initial tolerance. Some people will resist 'warmth' no matter what, dismissing it as a weakness in style. There's no accounting for taste.
A cozy can be a mystery and most often is, but I think the word can be used to describe books that leave out the murder but give us the atmospherics. The prolific author Alexander McCall Smith excels at this sort of thing though of course, he also has written (and currently continues to write) two best selling mystery series.
But back to Corduroy Mansions:
The series revolves around a group of various eccentrics who live in the Pimlico section of London, in a collection of flats affectionately nicknamed Corduroy Mansions. These people live day to day lives of quiet desperation, just as most of us do. The fact that their desperation is of a decidedly more humorous bent than ours naturally makes for interesting reading. This is all due to the disarming pen of Alexander McCall Smith whose own endearing warmth can't help but find its way onto the pages of his books. Smith's tenderness for his characters is apparent in all his work. It's one of the main reason I like him so much.
I think McCall Smith is a natural empath, he must be, to have created these quirky but believably human characters whose happiness becomes, over time, so important to the reader.
And now to the cast of characters:
a melancholy, kind of wishy-washy wine merchant nearing an unsatisfactory middle age. He is the owner of:
Freddie de la Hay, an irrepressible and very clever Pimlico terrier.
William's unprincipled and opportunistic son who has finally moved out having snagged a very wealthy girlfriend - they spend six months of the year in the Windward Islands proving, so far at least, that being a cad occasionally does pay off.
a caterer and well-meaning proprietor of Marcia's Table. She has her heart set on William, but he's not sure she's the right one. William is fifty years old and still picky.
a literary agent and fiance of the impossibly handsome, Adonis-perfect Hugh, who longs to go live on the family farm in Scotland. Barbara is currently attempting to sign the American author of the sure-to-be bestseller, Autobiography of a Yeti. Unlikely or not, the Yeti is apparently visiting with his biographer in London.
Her partner at the aforementioned agency, the supercilious Rupert Porter, has dubious views and suspicions regarding the book (he thinks it'a hoax) though he wouldn't mind having a huge literary hit.
a psychoanalyst and mother of the most disliked politician in the city, the odious Oedipus Snark, ex-boyfriend of the above mentioned Barbara. Berthea is currently in the throes of writing an unauthorized biography of her unlikable son in which she plans to air all his dirty laundry. Need I mention - she can't stand her son.
Berthea is the sister of Terence Moongrove,
a mystically inclined, dangerously spacey (but likable) young man with more money than good sense. An eye must be kept on Terence who tends to believe that everyone is his friend and all wish him well.
Accountant Basil Wickramsinghe a slightly mysterious (but kindly) tenant who gives good cocktail parties.
assistant to photographer Tim Something (yes that's his name) and student of art history, she lives in Corduroy Mansions with three other flat mates and has a benign sort of relationship with the artistically inclined and decidedly asexual James who is also studying art history and fond of the works of the painter Nicholas Poussin. James's problem is that he finds the idea of physical contact with anyone icky.
Corduroy Mansions is not a mystery series, not really (unless you count the mysteries of everyday life and human behavior), even if the title, THE DOG WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD might make you think differently.
William French is approached by MI6 wanting to recruit his dog Freddy de la Hay for use in a scheme to snare some swarthy Russians dealing in big time corporate secrets, but that doesn't exactly turn the book into a mystery/mystery. To William it's just an out of the blue request by his country - or so he views it when he meekly hands Freddy over (temporarily) in the interests of national security. William is a patriot after all.
But William will soon learn that being a spy is not all its cracked up to be when Freddy de la Hay goes missing.
These stories, as Onyx Reviews says in their review of the first book in the Corduroy Mansions series, are a 'collection of vignettes and the journeys are more important than the destinations. The pleasure of books like this is the time spent with these endearing characters, most of whom are well-meaning and kind. Some of the plots and sub-plots have complete arcs with satisfactory resolution, others simply meander on from Point A to Point G and ultimately peter out, exactly the way things do in real life.
Originally this book and the others I believe, were written as part of a newspaper serial. Read more about that here.
A CONSPIRACY OF FRIENDS is the third book in the series and here once again we meet up with old friends. And once again Freddy de la Hay has an escapade. This time it's in the country where he promptly disappears through a rabbit hole and into a terrifying adventure and a new life as a photographic model. (Don't worry, it all works out in the end.) In the meantime, believing that Freddy is lost forever, a despondent William French is disconcerted by an unexpected confession from an old friend.
And literary agent Barbara Ragg is disconcerted as well by a strange confession from her 'perfect' beau, Hugh. While Barbara's spacey brother Terence Moongrove becomes a racing car driver.
And of course, Marcia Light continues to wonder if she'll ever get a proposal from William.
In the meantime, the odious politician Oedipus Snark (odious being the operational word) has a run in with the Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle collider and comes out the other side a different man. Or does he? Inquiring minds want to know, most especially his long-suffering mother Berthea who is still hard at work on the unauthorized bio. Has Oedipus finally gotten his comeuppance? What happens next? Stay tuned for the next book in the series.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BERTIE (Book 4 in the 44 Scotland Street series) is my first literary visit to Edinburgh in the company of another quirky group of eccentric characters beginning with precocious six year old Bertie Pollock who laments the status of his life. Bertie is unlike most six year old boys in that he takes Italian conversazione lessons and saxophone lessons (he plays jazz), goes to yoga classes and regularly sees a psychiatrist whom Bertie thinks looks an awful lot like his new little brother Ulysses. (I told you Bertie was precocious.)
This full schedule of activities are forced on Bertie by his pushy, officious, over-protective, over-bearing mother despite weak protests from Bertie's father who has difficulty standing up to his wife's domineering ways. All Bertie wants to do is be a normal rough and tumble little boy. But the idea horrifies his mother. She picks his friends (a dreadful little girl named Olivia being one of them) and paints the walls of Bertie's room pink. Poor Bertie simply cannot catch a break.
Other characters living at 44 Scotland Street and surrounding area also have their own ups and downs and bouts of gentle desperation. Among them:
Lou Brown, a tall young woman who runs the local cafe and has a boyfriend named Robbie whose obsessive devotion to the Jacobites (who want to return the Stuarts to the throne of Scotland) borders on the manic. When will Big Lou find true love with a sane person?
illustration by Iain McIntosh
Then there's Angus Lordie, a painter or portraits and his perceptive (if occasionally a shade too canine-rowdy) dog Cyril, he of the golden tooth and propensity for winking.
And so on and so on. The characters here are just as quietly eccentric as in the Corduroy Mansions series, but perhaps not equally as likable - at least that's how I found them. Except for little Bertie of course whom we all wish well, honestly that mother of his is SO hard to take. Yet somehow poor Bertie remains remarkably sanguine considering his situation.
Despite (or maybe because of) their occasional bouts of odd behavior, all of Alexander McCall Smith's characters are as recognizable as our own neighbors and just as fallible. But in this particular series, I think, it's the city of Edinburgh that shines brightest. McCall Smith obviously loves Scotland (and the Scottish people) and here he tenderly cajoles the reader into sharing that affection. (I visited the city many years ago and I concur that is is a an oddly fabulous place (where all the babies seem to have red hair) full of warm and friendly if slightly quirky people.
I am quickly lining up the next in the series as fast as I can get them at my library.