Friday, July 8, 2011

A Conspiracy of Friends - Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third volume of adventures for the inhabitants of Corduroy Mansions, a block of flats in London's Pimlico. I'm not as enamoured of the characters of Corduroy Mansions as I am of the Edinburgh equivalent, 44 Scotland Street. I'm interested & involved in all the Scotland Street crowd, even the annoying & unpleasant ones, but there are some Corduroy Mansions characters that leave me cold. I think it's the atmosphere of Edinburgh that's so attractive. McCall Smith really knows & loves Edinburgh. I know he lives there & I just think that level of knowledge & engagement with the city really comes across in both the Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series.

I do love William French, failed Wine Master & owner of Freddie de la Hay, a dog with enough personality to carry the whole book on his own! Freddie's adventures in the previous book, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold, when he was seconded by MI5, were wonderful. As a definite cat rather than dog person, the fact that I always love McCall Smith's dogs is a testament to his excellent characterisations. William is kind, thoughtful but lonely, dismissed by his boorish son, Eddie (one of the characters I can't stand) & pursued romantically by Marcia, the caterer of diplomatic events. When William & Freddie visit friends in the country for the weekend, William in is for more than one surprise. He is disconcerted by a friend's confession & distraught when Freddie goes missing. I had to skim the chapters where Freddie was stuck head first down a rabbit warren but, he does escape from this near-death experience & he finds himself involved with a new family & a new career as a model.

Berthea Snark is continuing to research her warts-and-all biography of her dreadfully unpleasant son, Oedipus, "the only truly nasty Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament". Oedipus is thrilled to receive a promotion but not so pleased to discover that his new job doesn't entitle him to first-class air travel. His career may also be about to falter when his ex-lover, literary agent, Barbara Ragg, decides to spill the beans on a dodgy deal from his past. Then, on a trip to Geneva, Oedipus has a close encounter with the Hadron Collider that changes his life.

Barbara is also reassessing her life. She had promised to sell her flat to her business partner, Rupert Porter, & when she changes her mind, Rupert is so furious that he begins to undermine Barbara by pinching her clients. Most spectacularly he pinches the mysterious author of the Autobiography of a Yeti, the book that could be the bestseller of the decade. Barbara also finally finds out what happened to her fiancé, Hugh, on his life-changing trip to South America. Will the revelation change their relationship?

Berthea is also coping with her incredibly irritating & gormless brother, Terence Moongrove (another character I can't stand) as he is talked into buying a vintage racing car & getting involved in racing, with himself as driver.

Then there's Caroline, hopelessly in love with James, who may or may not be gay. Caroline's mother has tried to convince her that James isn't interested but she has to resort to a little motherly subterfuge to introduce a more suitable man into Caroline's life. But is Ronald all he seems to be? I think he's a little too good to be true. I have no evidence but a feeling & I'll have to wait for the next instalment to find out.

A Conspiracy of Friends is full of the humour, wisdom & gentle satire that is McCall Smith's trademark. First published as a serial novel in the Daily Telegraph, reading A Conspiracy of Friends  is a charming way to spend an afternoon.


  1. I almost managed to read this one online in real time (stayed current on the first 10 or 12 chapters, then fell hopeelssly behind!) I still hope I can do that sometime, just for the experience.

    Do you follow him on Twitter? His tweets are as all-over-the-place and imaginative as his books. I also had the wonderful chance to hear him speak when he came to Boston - he is SO funny.

  2. I'm interested in trying out an Alexander McCall Smith book. Do you have any recommendations on where to start? Thanks!

  3. I haven't read any of the CM books yet, though the first one is on my TBR shelves. I enjoyed the Scotland Street ones, though. I love reading about places I know and visit often!

  4. Audrey, I read the first two CM books online every day but I just never got around to this one. I don't tweet but I've heard AMS talk several times at the Melbourne Writers Festival & he's wonderful, a really delightful man. Virginia, I think I'd start with either the first of the Scotland Street books (44 Scotland Street) or the first Isabel Dalhousie (Sunday Philosophy Club). I love the feeling of Edinburgh in these books. I've never been able to get into the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series although it's his most popular. The Scotland Street books are more humourous & the Isabels are more thoughtful. Penny, as I said in the post, I like CM but not as much as Scotland Street. Still very enjoyable though.

  5. Sorry to be so dull as to keep saying "I agree", I'm probably repeating myself too since I think I made a similar comment on a previous occasion that you blogged about AMS, nevertheless I too prefer Scotland Street and Dalhousie to the Corduroy Mansions and Lady Detective series. I enjoy them all, but the two Edinburgh based series are definitely my favourites. I too find the Scotland Street characters more appealing. Perhaps a newcomer to AMS should sample the first book in each series first and see which one suits him/her best?

    If I had to choose just one adjective to describe the books of McCall Smith I would opt for "gentle". Not only is the humour of a gentle variety, his whole literary world seems to revolve around general good will to all. Even Isabel Dalhousie's spats with fellow philosophers seem less bitter than similar disputes found in campus novels. Not very realistic, some may carp? However, a little more gentleness in the real world would be no bad thing, in my opinion.

  6. David, I agree that we're in furious agreement about AMS! Gentle is the perfect adjective for his style. Even when Freddie had his head stuck in the rabbit hole, I didn't really think anything too awful would happen to him. AMS wouldn't be so violent to any of his characters. I'm heartened to think that he's such a popular author. Just proves some readers enjoy an alternative to serial killer novels & misery memoirs.