An Alexander McCall Smith book – whatever next?

I’ve done it before, I may do it in the future – but I have recently succumbed to an Alexander McCall Smith novel. Well, there are so many of them about, it’s hard to avoid one or two now and again. After all, he does appear to have four series of novels going at the moment; even at one each a year that is quite a lot of books. I suppose there are benefits of writing a series of novels in that a writer does not have to reinvent the characters, setting and type of book every time. I was surprised that this book, The Importance of Being Seven, was quite so densely written, given McCall Smith’s impressive writing rate. I don’t know if he dictates each book like Barbara Cartland was said to do, and certainly there is a little unevenness in his style, very short chapters about one set of characters then he goes onto a different set without necessarily resolving any situations. This book was readable and it flowed, but it shouted (to me at least) that  “this book is only one of a series”. It does stand up on its own – just- and it is relatively easy to follow even if you haven’t read all the ’44 Scotland Street’ novels leading up to this one. I believe that I did read the first one several years ago, and gave it away as not being something I wanted to keep. It began life as a series of stories in a Scottish newspaper which would explain the short chapters, and the need to keep it going in certain strands which the reader could keep up with on a weekly basis.

I decided to read this because I heard McCall Smith talk about it at the Tyneside Cinema a few months ago. (A lovely place in which you sit in armchairs and are implored to eat your popcorn ‘responsibly’ , which is fine until the bottom of the box falls apart…)He was doing a talk and signing his books while introducing the marvelous film Casablanca.

(not the lego version – but this looks like fun…see

A lot of his stories and anecdotes were familiar while still being funny, and he read a section of this book in which one of the heroes, six year old Bertie, is being comforted by his schoolmates when his mother disappears. As this involves lurid descriptions of ears being  chopped off and accompanying ransom demands being dismissed as junk mail, Job’s comforters could learn a thing or two…

This is a good book in the style of newspaper serials. Some editing and overlaps need sorting out, I was confused about some of the characters, and it just feels like an ongoing section out of a very long series. I admit I have missed 4 books in the series, but I suppose it suggests that each book does not follow the lead up, crisis, resolution pattern.  I gave up reading The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series when on book four or so I felt like I was reading the same novel over and over again. Maybe the secret is like eating very rich cake; a little bit goes a long way and you mustn’t do it too often. This is a jolly little book, not so much a novel, but would be quite useful to fill a sunny afternoon or two when anything else would be too challenging.


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