Auden, Austen inspire Scottish writer

  • Article by: CAROLE E. BARROWMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2010 - 12:21 PM

The author of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" has another new book out.

Alexander McCall Smith is an admirer of the gentle social comedies of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.

When the poet W.H. Auden wrote of a place that "set the spirit soaring," he could have been referring to Alexander McCall Smith's loch home on the remote western shores of Scotland. McCall Smith describes the beautiful tranquility of his house "south of Skye-- opposite Mull" with the sea breaking "30 feet from my doorstep" as a perfect place.

It's not surprising that all of McCall Smith's books, including his acclaimed Scottish novels and his much-admired series, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," set in Botswana, are highly evocative of place. His books are also populated with gallant men and spirited women -- many "traditionally built" -- and have plots steeped in the foibles and fancies of their cultures.

McCall Smith has a new book out in the Ladies' Detective Agency series -- "The Double Comfort Safari Club," published last Tuesday. He took a break from his writing to talk to the Star Tribune from his Highland home.

Q When Precious Ramotswe opens the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, she looks to "The Principles of Private Detection" for guidance. Did you read anything similar?

A As a boy I read quite a lot of Agatha Christie, and I think the H.R.F. Keating novels set in Bombay are really rather nice, but I didn't do any organized research. "The Principles of Private Detection" by Clovis Andersen is an entirely imagined book, and, funnily enough, it's proved to be the bane of my life. I keep getting letters and e-mails from readers asking where they can get a copy. So now I think I shall have to write it, and with a name like Andersen, he'd have to come from the Midwest, don't you think? Perhaps even Minnesota.

Q I've read that you're a fan of W.H. Auden.

A I am indeed. Auden was an extraordinary poet, and the way he used language was so wonderful. Isabel Dalhousie [from McCall Smith's "The Sunday Philosophy Club" series] makes reference to him quite a few times.

Q Auden once wrote that mysteries are about restoring the moral balance to a community, and given your experience as professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, is that why you crafted "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" as a mystery?

A I think Auden's belief is quite true, but that does not always mean the villain gets his come-uppance. Patricia Highsmith, who I find wonderful to read, has Ripley getting away with his crimes. When I began, I was struck by the way in which the genre -- and I know I'm a particularly odd practitioner of it because my books don't always have crimes in them -- allowed me to use the device of the detective agency to bring all sorts of people into my stories.

Q Auden also writes about the importance of setting crime in a "great good place." You write about two great places -- Edinburgh and Botswana. Why is place so important?

A I'm very interested in how we are formed by place ... and how we think and look at the world is culturally determined. I write about people who are deeply rooted. People who have a strong sense of who and where they are have always intrigued me. Botswana has a unique history, so it's a very particular place to write about ... I'm also writing about middle-class Edinburgh. Others, like Ian Rankin, are writing carefully and strikingly about a different kind of Edinburgh. Ian is a neighbor and I like his books, but he's presenting a different circle of the city. Lots of people in Edinburgh make their living through the mind. That's the circle of Edinburgh I write most about.

Q Your books are about the manners of a community as much as its mysteries. Are you a fan of the novel of manners?

A I'm a great fan of Austen and also of Barbara Pym, who wrote wonderful social comedies that I find very amusing. I'm very interested in how important customs and social expectations are in creating and maintaining stable societies. I think if we ignore the small courtesies, we fundamentally weaken the bonds that make society possible. Then I'm afraid we're faced with people who can be quite feral in their approach to life.

Q Before you return to the call of the sea, can you tell us about the Really Terrible Orchestra?

A Indeed! The Really Terrible Orchestra is an amateur orchestra my wife and I established for people who are musically challenged but want to play together. I play the bassoon. I'm very weak. My wife plays the E-flat horn. She's not very good either. Last year we filled a New York concert hall. I think it's quite pleasing to hear a group of amateurs playing their hearts out and not doing it at all well. People get the joke and the laughter is wonderful.

Note: Alexander McCall Smith had been scheduled to appear in Minneapolis next week as part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust's "Living Legend" series. His North American tour was canceled due to travel restrictions resulting from the Icelandic volcano.

Carole Barrowman is a writer in Wisconsin. She is at www.carolebarrowman.com

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