Author Spotlight: Alexander McCall-Smith

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When I was a child, I would go to the library on my bike with a backpack full of already-consumed books, return them, and get another full backpack full of to-be-read books. Sometimes I’d go through a series, reading every single one as they were available at the library. Other times I went through “author phases.” Then I would check out every book by a particular author and read those.

For past two years or so, I’ve been on an author kick again: I was looking for quick, easy-to-read, “empty” fiction that was enjoyable. I realize this isn’t really a good thing. I should always use my precious reading time for books that actually add something to my life. But they do: they add sanity.

I enjoyed reading Alexander McCall-Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency a few years ago; it’s a good book club book and every book club I’ve been in has read it. It is about a “lady detective” in Botswana. How McCall-Smith, a man in a kilt, is able to capture this delightful woman and the intriguing country in this series is just amazing to me. (I know he wears kilts because I met him in Chicago a few years ago: he was wearing a kilt. That was before I knew most of his books take place in Scotland.) When I went to find the subsequent books in that series to read them (I think I’d only read through number five), I found that he had a number of other series.

Note: Some libraries classify him as Smith (SMI) and some classify him as McCall-Smith (MCC) or both. My current library has him under MACC.

Here’s the rundown.

The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series

These are clean, moral books, with clever characters and an intriguing setting. They should be read in order, as the plots build off of each other. As with many series, I believe the first books are the best; the formulaic style gets old further on. I love reading about Botswana. I never knew anything about it, but reading novels that take place there give me a sense of place. Now I want to go to Botswana to see the terrain!

  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
  • Tears of the Giraffe
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men
  • The Full Cupboard of Life
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
  • The Miracle at Speedy Motors
  • Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
  • The Double Comfort Safari Club
  • The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
  • The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection
  • The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
  • The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe
  • The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine
  • Precious and Grace
  • The House of Unexpected Sisters

Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainments Series

These are collections of short stories, each book being fairly short. The eponymous professor is incredibly conceited, which conceit places him in rather humorous situations.

  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs
  • The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
  • At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances
  • Unusual Uses for Olive Oil

The Sunday Philosophy Club Series or Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries

How do I say this? While the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is full of Botswana morals and Dr. von Igelfeld is a pompous, conservative, middle-aged German professor, these books are modern. They are set in McCall-Smith’s Edinburgh, and feature an almost 40-year-old single woman’s life and decisions, including her love life. While I enjoyed the mystery in the first novel, the “mysteries” in the subsequent novels have only disappointed me and Isabel’s immoral decisions disappoint me. I’m not sure I’ll read any subsequent novels. Maybe I don’t get in to the series because I just don’t relate to her. They aren’t spectacularly written, and the setting and character don’t interest me. It’s just Scotland (sorry if that offends anyone…). It seems to rain a lot.

  • The Sunday Philosophy Club
  • Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
  • The Right Attitude to Rain
  • The Careful Use of Compliments
  • The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday
  • The Lost Art of Gratitude
  • The Charming Quirks of Others
  • The Perils of Morning Coffee
  • The Forgotten Affairs of Youth
  • The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds
  • The Novel Habits of Happiness
  • A Distant View of Everything

44 Scotland Street Series

In the tradition of Dickens, McCall-Smith writes a serial novel as a regular column in the newspaper; in this case, The Scotsman. The novels track the daily life of persons living at said address in Edinburgh (although some of the characters move to a new address) through two -to-four page chapters. There are some other interesting characters that keep me interested, such as the six-year-old Italian-speaking, saxophone-playing Bertie, who has an overbearing mother. I enjoy these very much.

  • 44 Scotland Street
  • Espresso Tales
  • Love over Scotland
  • The World According to Bertie
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Scones
  • The Importance of Being Seven
  • Bertie Plays the Blues
  • Sunshine on Scotland Street
  • Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers
  • The Revolving Door of Life
  • The Bertie Project
  • A Time of Love and Tartan

McCall-Smith has also written a few collections of short stories, children’s stories, and academic text books (he was a Medical Law professor). There’s another series I haven’t even started yet, Corduroy Mansions. I can’t wait to dig in!

Which series is your favorite?

Reviewed on April 30, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I so enjoy the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series and just devoured the most recent book in the series, The Speedy Motor Club. I, for one, wish the books were longer. I read an interview with him and he said there were only going to be 11 books in the series, so it’s nearing its end.
    I’ve read one of the books in the 40 Scotland Street series. He gets women’s voices quite well and is excellent at quickly pulling one into his tale.
    My mother and I mail the books back and forth. I’ve been able to beat her to the punch in purchasing the last two in the series.

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