One imagines Alexander McCall-Smith writing with a gentle chuckle in a mahogany lined study, upon a sturdy and classically attractive desk with the sun streaming in from a treed garden.His engagement with his characters is gentle, humorous if not ironic and he is a master of portraying the inconsistency and humanity of us all as we paddle our way through this confusing world.
In this, his second novel of the Corduroy Mansions series, he brings together his characters: William French the wine merchant who has failed his "MW" (Master ofWines); Marcia, the caterer who charms him with her left over offerings from diplomatic receptions but not enough to interest him romantically; Barbara Ragg, literary agent, who occupies a flat that her business partner covets; Berthea Snark, psychiatrist and mother of the only nasty liberal democrat parliamentarian, Oedipus Snark; Caroline, Jo and Dee, flatmates who are outgrowing their youthful enthusiasm for the arrangement, and most particularly William's Pimlico Terrier, Freddie de la Hay, in the crumbling Corduroy Mansions. They are a modern version of Jane Austen's village: a perfect assembly of characters who share one compelling feature – they live side by side.
McCall-Smith is a humanitarian. It shines through his work. He regards his fellows with humour and indulgence, outlining their small, but also large lives and their human foibles. Each character has a distinct adventure and each resolves his or her situation, in a way, by the end, but the stories do not necessarily intersect. Their uniting factor is their place of residence.
The title, taken from John le Carre's 1963 bestselling spy novel, The Spy who came in from the Cold, is inspired by Freddie de la Hay whom William lends to MI6 for espionage work, a decision he immediately regrets. Freddie, an intelligent dog who sticks to doggie interests like biscuits and squirrels nearly meets an untimely end as he is enmeshed in the layered deceptions of a spy world.
The dupicity of the world of spies is deftly and hilariously portrayed by the author in this exchange among Russians who have just discovered a transmitter in Freddie's collar:
"So, Anatoly, here is your behavioural device.Ha! And let's take a look at what this says." She peered at the inscription on the casing of the transmitter: Property of MI6.
"MI6!" she exclaimed. "What do you say to that Anatoly? Our old friends – right here in the flat, courtesy of you. Well done!"
"Show it to me", he said. "You can't be sure…"
She passed the transmitter to him. "See? There it is — clear as daylight."
Podgornin examined the transmitter, and then looked reproachfully at Freddie de la Hay. "MI6? Why would they put their name on it? No organization would be so stupid as to do that. This is a joke, something from one of those novelty stores."
"Don't underestimate the peculiarity of the British," said one of the men. "It's perfectly possible that their security people put their names on their transmitters. It's probably part of their perverse sense of fair play."
The other man agreed. "yes, It's the same as using flies when you know that the real way to catch the fish is with a worm. Stupid people."
Podgornin looked at the ceiling. "unless they want us to think they'be been bugging us. That may be why they put "property of MI6' on the transmitter. They might have thought that we would discover it and then think that they –"
"Why?" snapped the woman. "why would they want us to think that they have been bugging us, when they have?"
One of the men had an idea. "perhaps they want us to think that they think that we think that they think that we think they're bugging us. That way we'll think that –"
Quiet!" said the woman. "I think that you think__"
While Freddie is being discovered by the Russians, the other characters play out their daily lives, attracting and losing partners, encountering business difficulties, all with a gentle cadence that delights readers who enjoy this kind of very English mixture of stories.
Alexander McCall -mith wrote this book as a serial which appeared daily in the London Telegraph, much as Dickens serialized his most famous novels. The hard cover edition appeared in Canada last year and the soft cover edition is now published under the Vintage imprint, a division of Random House. It is gentle read, inspiring a smile rather than outright laughter, but the vicissitudes of the characters are oh so recognizable to us all.