Prolific author, Alexander McCall Smith, returned to his Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries series back in March this year with the tenth in the series, THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS, but we are just getting our review up now, we are slowly catching up on our backlog, this will be made much easier now with new writers on board. Please enjoy Kernel Morgan’s review below. THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS is out now from the fine folks at Hachette Australia, as mentioned it is out now and can be purchased from all bookstores and online outlets. All the best……..JK.
THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS is Alexander McCall Smith’s tenth novel in the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries (also known as the Sunday Philosophy Club Series). This novel is a cozy mystery set around the lighthouses of coastal western Scotland. The central mystery of the novel is whether a young boy, Harry, has experienced reincarnation or some kind of memory fabrication, possibly due to grief.
Before you get into an Alexander McCall Smith book know that he has a cult of loyal readers and a catalogue over eighty books. Flea, the guitarist from Red Hot Chili Peppers, has said “They are really fun books and make you feel like human beings can have worthwhile lives. I highly recommend them if you like to be happy.” Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and former first lady Laura Bush are also fans.
THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS is more like an episode in a serial than a stand-alone novel. Isabel Dalhousie is investigating a local mystery – a boy who claims to have lived a past life – but the parts relating to that mystery are probably only a quarter of the text. Much of the novel is getting updates on pre-existing relationships and life events presumably referred to in previous episodes. It is a little difficult to dive into this character so far into the series. Most fans advise to make the first McCall book you read the first instalment in any one of his series.
The tone is much like ROSEMARY & THYME or MIDSOMER MURDERS or MISS FISHER. It is inoffensive and dottery. You are provided with an investigator who could have the catchphrase ‘oh do pardon me dear’. This is a novel that you have a cup of tea and a biscuit with – with a doily and a saucer and one of those ornate collectable silver spoons – and catch up with some old friends about neighbourhood gossip and small-town intrigue.
To be honest, I was a little thrown at first. Isabel was introduced in a scene of domestic bliss where everyone is happy and everything is right with the world. There was no conflict. Or so it seemed. The mystery of Harry and his past-life memories are not introduced until the end of the third chapter. It is more of a curiosity than a conflict. Everybody is dreadfully polite to one another. This is no hard-boiled private detective story or sordid sexual violence. It is a bit of crumpet with a smiley face drawn in honey. That is what has made McCall successful, that is what the fans keep coming back for.
Isabel’s friend Sam walks past her house one evening at dinner time and tells her of the case of a single mother in her building who has a young son that appears to be recalling a past life. The boy, Harry, describes a house that looks out on some islands and draws a picture of a lighthouse. He knows a lot of detail about a location he has never been to. Isabel is asked to speak to Harry’s mother and thinks to herself ‘Remember what you have and what other people don’t have.’ Considering the motivations of the boy to invent a false memory, she thinks ‘Another life. Invent another life to make this one more bearable. A life with a father.’
Upon speaking to Harry’s mother it is revealed that Harry has recently been talking about wanting to go back to see his other family. He thinks they must be missing him and be wondering where he is. He thinks that if he should die he could go back to this other family. He talks about making himself dead. Isabel’s internal reaction is “Did children that young actually kill themselves? She was not sure. Teenagers did; one read about it in the newspapers. There had been a recent case, now that she thought about it – a case that involved, as many cases did, bullying.”
When asked if she believes in this reincarnation business, Isabel remains open-minded and ethical: “There was some evidence, she thought, but it became impossible to say whether it had any weight. People came up with what they claimed was evidence for all sorts of unlikely things – for UFOs, for the Bermuda Triangle, for telepathy, even the Loch Ness Monster. But close examination of this purported evidence tended to reveal its shaky foundations …”
Alexander McCall Smith is an acquired taste. You need to be in the right mood – or have the right personality, or perhaps the right attitude – to appreciate the little slice of calm that the author carves out for you, and loyally keeps delivering on a regular basis. If you have been following the adventures of Isobel Dalhousie you will surely welcome an update on her life and enjoy her philosophical and poetic musings on the dilemmas of the day. If you are new to this author perhaps the most telling information I can give you is this: this is a book where someone’s name is Clementine Lettuce. Make of that what you will.