A guilty pleasure and pure fun

2008-12-10 00:00

THERE’S something about Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series that feels like a guilty pleasure — you know that too much of it, taken at one sitting, might lead to indigestion, but you can’t stop yourself. And you know that it is un-PC — should we love this middle-class, safe, slightly smug, parochial world? None of Ian Rankin’s mean Edinburgh streets here, of which more later.

This series of novels — this is the fifth — began life in serial form in the Scotsman newspaper, where it proved an instant hit. Perhaps there’s a lesson there for newspaper managements; readers do like something other than hard news. The novels dealt originally with the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, a house in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, now divided into flats. The range has extended somewhat, but the regulars are still there, going about their business: six-year-old Bertie and his ghastly mother; acerbic Domenica; shambolic Angus and his mysterious dog; narcissistic Bruce; Matthew and his new bride.

It is all utterly delightful. McCall Smith is extraordinarily funny, and if sometimes things tread close to the edge of whimsy, they never quite fall over. The points made are real ones — the problems his cast face are the problems that face anyone who would like to live a decent, normal life in a modern world. It can make you think, should you want to.

To return to Ian Rankin; he appears as a character here, encountered by the inimitable Bertie who is trying — with limited success — to escape from the clutches of his mother and his unpleasant classmate, Olive, by becoming a Cub. McCall Smith, his tongue firmly in his cheek, makes Rankin the victim of one of the few (not very) violent incidents that his characters encounter.

If you want pure fun, guilty pleasure or not, you can hardly do better than this.

Margaret von Klemperer

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