Alexander McCall Smith has been successful with “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” and “The Isabel Dalhouse Series”; but here he inaugurates a new series with
Corduroy Mansions (353 pages, Pantheon, $24.95) is the title of a block of flats in the not terribly fashionable Pimlico section of London. This is the hub of Alexander McCall Smith’s new fictional community. To list the characters is to give at least an inkling of how this witty and generous work manages to engage us (even, perhaps, in spite of ourselves).
William, a mild, middle-aged wine merchant, lives with his increasingly annoying twenty-something son Eddie on the top floor of the jokingly but appropriately named Corduroy Mansions. Eddie is annoying primarily because he does not seem prepared to move out any time soon. William, as genial as he is in most situations, is really fed up that Eddie can’t begin to set up on his own.
William's neighbors and friends are a wonderful cast of characters. Primary among his admirers is Marcia, a classy caterer, who thinks William is just about perfect as a companion, and she even thinks he would do quite well as a husband. She sets herself the challenge of working her way into William’s good graces as well as his apartment. To get the room she wants, of course, she has to oust Eddie; but she seems singularly ready to take on that process and to win William’s gratitude in the process.
The other tenants in the building include three young girls, about Eddie’s age, who share the first floor flat. Dee is a health food and vitamin guru, who believes in various herbal cures and vitamin regimens. In fact, she is trying to persuade her young employee Martin that he should allow her to administer a colonic irrigation.
Jenny is personal assistant to an odious Liberal Democrat member of Parliament called Oedipus Snark. Since every Oedipus must at least have a mother, this one has a mother who is a psychotherapist and hates her son so much that she is writing his scandalous biography.
Oedipus has a girlfriend, Barbara, a literary agent, whom he irritates to the point that she breaks up with him as dramatically as she can. This annoys him in turn, and he tries to get back at women by firing Jenny and exposing one of Barbara's professional secrets. Barbara, though, quickly finds herself in the midst of another relationship, with a dazzling and mysterious guy called Hugh. Her friends hated Oedipus, of course, but they are suspicious about Hugh too, and she is hard pressed to persuade them that she hasn’t made another terrible mistake.
Caroline, the third roommate, a beautiful and rather sophisticated student of Art History, has something for her friend James, another student in her graduate program. But James is gay, or at least he has been gay, but he has recently started to think that maybe he is straight. This certainly gives Caroline some ideas.
Last, but by no means least, there is the so-called Pimlico terrier, Freddie Le Hay. Freddie is introduced by Marcia as a way to get Eddie out of the way—Eddie hates dogs—but he has too much personality for that. He wins William’s heart right away, and he comes close to stealing the show from Marcia herself. What happens with Freddie is truly amusing.
This is Alexander McCall Smith at his best. The ending is wonderfully positive and generous. This novel can put anyone but the most curmudgeonly in a great mood. I’ve read it while camping in an RV. It is just what the doctor ordered!
Alexander McCall Smith
Pick up a copy of Corduroy Mansions at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.