The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve resisted reading Alexander McCall Smith’s books up to now partly because I couldn’t quite believe they would live up to my expectations and partly because I don’t like the style of the book covers. This one is quite off-putting because of its colours, which is really a trivial reason not to read a book.  I am so pleased that I overcame my resistance as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. I’ll be looking for more.

The Careful Use of Compliments  is an Isabel Dalhousie Novel, one of the Sunday Philosophy Club series. It’s number 4 in the series, but I had no problem following it as it stands well on its own. I’ve just seen the US cover – much better. My quibble with the cover is my only criticism of this book – I loved it.

Isabel has just had a baby, Charlie, and is in a relationship with his father, Jamie (14 years her junior) who is her niece’s, ex-boyfriend. Cat (her niece)  is upset and resentful and embarrassed even though she broke up her relationship with Jamie, and despite Isabel’s best efforts to bring about a reconciliation is barely speaking to her.

Cat said nothing, and Isabel realised that she was witnessing pure envy; unspoken, inexpressible. Envy makes us hate what we ourselves want, she reminded herself. We hate it because we can’t have it. (page 4)

In addition Isabel has to deal with an attempt from Professor Dove to take over her editorship of the philosophical journal,  Review of Applied Ethics. As well as coping with these two difficult situations Isabel tries to buy a painting by Andrew McInnes at auction and fails. This is a previously unknown painting by McInnes of a scene on the isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides, where McInnes had drowned in mysterious circumstances. She thinks there is something odd about the painting and sets out to discover more about him and his paintings, becoming convinced that this one is a forgery.

But it’s not really the mystery that captivated me. It’s the philosophical questions that are always uppermost in Isabel’s mind and conversations. It’s her way of ‘interferring’ in matters which she considers ‘helping’, and her kind hearted nature (but she suffers few qualms at getting the upperhand over Dove). It’s the little gems of wisdom scattered through the book. It’s the descriptions of Scotland and Scottishness, of Edinburgh and the islands. It’s about the nuances of understanding the use of language as expressions of general goodwill, about the meaning of money and how it should or should not be used, about late motherhood and family relationships, and about morality and justice.

There are many passages I could quote. I think this one relating to the title of the book is a good one. Here Isabel is talking to Walter, who had tried to sell her McInnes’s painting:

‘Please’, she said, impulsively reaching out to lay a hand upon his sleeve. ‘Please. That came out all wrong. I’m not suggesting that you tried to sell me a forgery.’

He seemed to be puzzling something out. Now he looked up at her. ‘I suppose you thought that because I wanted to sell it quickly.’

‘I was surprised,’ she said. ‘but I thought that there must be a perfectly reasonable explanation.’ That was a lie, she knew. I am lying as a result of having made an unfair assumption. And I lied too, when I paid a compliment to that unpleasant dog of his. But I have to lie. And what would life be like if we paid one another no compliments? (pages 222-3)

4 thoughts on “The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. I’ve just read book two in the series and love them – waiting for the library to get book three back in. I resisted reading them too, not sure why, but am really pleased I succumbed in the end. I’m going to try the 44 Scotland Street books next, am already a big fan of the Mma Ramotswe books.


  2. Margaret – I’d become a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s other series, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series quite a while ago, and love those books. I agree with you that the Isabel Dalhousie series raises absolutely fascinating philosophical questions, and it does a terrific job of depicting Scotland. I have to admit, though, I like the other series better. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed The Careful Use of Compliments.


  3. What fun! Tonight attended a book discussion about the above mentioned title/series. There were few compliments but what flare and fireworks. Isabel’s ‘tattoo’ certainly had us all clucking for joy. Thanks to Alexander McCall Smith for an hour well spent.


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