Why good guys need to win in detective novels

Author Alexander McCall Smith. Author Alexander McCall Smith. (Tara Murphy)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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A former law professor and bioethicist, Alexander McCall Smith has written more than 60 books for adults and children. He is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana, and the Isabel Dalhousie series, set in Edinburgh. Born in what is now Zimbabwe, McCall Smith lives in Scotland. He spoke to us while visiting Boston with a new Isabel novel, “The Charming Quirks of Others.’’

What kinds of books do you read?

My recreational reading used to be mostly fiction. But I think as we go through life we identify areas where we need to do more reading. I’m reading more history, particularly Scottish history. I’m tempted to read more about economics, because I’m not terribly well informed on that subject. And I enjoy philosophy. I enjoy reading about the history of art, about subjects such as the Dutch golden age of paintings.

What are you reading at the moment?

There’s a professor of architecture called Christopher Alexander, who’s a remarkable man. He’s written a four-volume theoretical analysis, “The Nature of Order,’’ of what makes us comfortable in our communities — what a humane architecture looks like, and how towns and cities should grow. I’m reading the first volume, “The Phenomenon of Life,’’ and it’s absolutely fascinating.

It sounds like you and Isabel Dalhousie overlap significantly in your reading.

Yes, we do. Isabel and I see eye to eye on a number of issues, and certainly we read the same things. What I like about Isabel is that she integrates the ideas that she reads in books into her day-to-day life, and so she’ll see something while she’s walking which will trigger an association or a thought. Most of the time, we’re tempted to go through life without thinking too greatly about that which we’re doing or seeing. But books and the richness they offer can enhance the texture of our lives.

What do you see as literary forebears for your No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie series?

In relation to the Botswana novels, my greatest debt is to R.K. Narayan, whose Malgudi novels I think are beautiful little gems. I was quite young when I started them, and I don’t think I would have written the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels in quite the way I wrote them had it not been for Narayan’s influence.

For Isabel Dalhousie, I would have to nod in the direction of Muriel Spark and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’’

Both you and Isabel think a lot about ethics. Is there a link between morality and reading?

Well, that I find a very interesting subject. When you’re reading a work of fiction, and you’re invited into that world, you tend to evaluate that world morally in the same way you would evaluate any bit of the real world. The process of moral judgment is active when you read.

Auden said something interesting in his essay on detective fiction, “The Guilty Vicarage’’: He said people want the moral scales to function at the end of the book. We want the wrongdoer to get his or her just desserts, and we feel somewhat cheated if that doesn’t happen. That suggests that the fictional world has a very strong moral effect.

We also like to see things like the meek inheriting the earth — to see the oppressed get some justice. We see that most strongly in children’s fiction. Take Roald Dahl and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’’ which is a massive assertion of the value of the poor, decent young hero. Charlie is going to inherit the chocolate factory. Which is about as good as it gets.

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