Don Noble
4:24 pm
Mon January 8, 2007

The Right Attitude to Rain

Set in Edinburgh, this work partakes of place as thoroughly as any Yoknapatawpha novel. The action moves up and down the streets of the old city, in and out of restaurants and coffee shops and parks, art galleries and delicatessens.

Alexander McCall Smith is one of the bestselling, most popular, and most productive fiction writers alive today, with fifteen volumes of fiction now read all over the world in thirty-six languages. Whatever fame and wealth McCall Smith accumulates, he deserves every bit of it. You will simply never meet a nicer man, and he has proven that ordinary, decent people can be written about interestingly.

This author was born in Zimbabwe, and, after education in Scotland, he became a professor of medical law and a lifelong ponderer of ethics. He taught at Edinburgh University, took some time out to help establish a law school in Botswana, wrote scholarly studies, thirty or so children's books, and some short stories for the BBC, and then published The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the fictional story of Precious Ramotswe, an ordinary but very perceptive woman who investigates mysteries, usually domestic, not murders, solving them by careful observation and good common sense.

Isabel Dalhousie is a Scottish woman, a native of Edinburgh. She is divorced and independent, having inherited from her American mother, a native of Mobile, Alabama. McCall Smith travels constantly, and when he meets people he likes in a place he likes?in this case Alabama Poet Laureate Sue Walker and her husband, Ron, who hosted him in Mobile?he puts that place into his next book.

Isabel is the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, a line of work not far from McCall Smith's own. Isabel's journal publishes articles about such issues as whether one is just as guilty not saving a person from drowning as having thrown the person in. Or how to choose whom to leave out of the lifeboat if there is not enough room. Or whom possibly to kill and eat, if the survival of many depends on the eating of one.

Isabel, who is 42, has a kind of ethical dilemma of her own in this novel. She is in love with Jamie, who is 28. Jamie is the thoroughly cast-off lover of Isabel's niece, Cat. Cat doesn't want Jamie. Jamie is over Cat. But Isabel knows, as we all do, that the waters of sexual jealousy are easily roiled.

This issue arose in an earlier Dalhousie novel, and McCall Smith talks of the letters he received. Some women wrote, let them have their affair; Isabel deserves to be happy. Others wrote, predictably, that Isabel, like any woman, can be perfectly happy without a man?the old "why would a fish need a bicycle" argument?and that she should not get together with Jamie. In The Right Attitude to Rain, I am happy to say, the matter is happily, joyously resolved.

Set in Edinburgh, this work partakes of place as thoroughly as any Yoknapatawpha novel. (Why, I wonder, do Southerners believe themselves to be the only people who are really attached to their own home territory?) The action moves up and down the streets of the old city, in and out of restaurants and coffee shops and parks, art galleries and delicatessens.

The weather is of course a constant factor, changing as it does every couple of hours in Scotland. What is the right attitude toward rain? Rain can be beautiful, and there is no point in "being depressed by it. That never changes anything." Burt Bacharach would agree.

Just for fun, I posed an ethical question to McCall Smith when we spoke a few weeks ago. How about, I suggested, if people who were in fact registered organ donors be at the head of the line for transplants, should they need one? Those who refuse to sign up to be a donor would go to the bottom of the list to be a recipient. He promised to get back to me on that.

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