Bertie Plays the Blues By Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith, I have decided, writes too many books. He has several series going, and he churns out several titles every year. With a series like “44 Scotland Street,” that can lead to problems.

“44 Scotland Street” is a soap opera about a group of people who meander through their lives, meeting and interacting at their own pace. This gives McCall Smith the opportunity to practise his gentle wit and indulge his penchant for philosophy and the keen observation of humanity. The problem is that, just as an author shouldn’t portray boredom by boring the reader, this writer has to watch out for portraying his characters’ meanderings by wandering in his writing.

It is a given in the “44 Scotland Street” books that not much will happen. However, in the better stories, the small things that do happen are carefully crafted to result from the personalities of the characters, and they are very important to the people who experience them. And thus to the reader.

In this book, the events just seem to happen to characters deus-ex-machina-fashion without much connection to what they do or what they think. Familiar characters have been doing the same things for so long that they are beginning to slide into stereotypes.

My most unfavourite example of this is Bertie’s mother, Irene, who seems to finally see the light in response to minimal motivation of the kind that she has been cheerfully ignoring all of his life.

There is also a disconnect with the title character (who is given a disappointingly small role in the book). We know that Bertie has been to Glasgow, and it is inconceivable that he should make the mistake he makes in the latter chapters, no matter how much he would like to make the mistake. In fact the whole “adoption” plotline just doesn’t fly. Bertie may be young and naive, but he is certainly not stupid.

Also, McCall Smith’s flights of whimsy, which are often such soaring examples of fine writing, seem to nosedive in this book. Antonia’s multi-page letter is a not-so-perfect case-in-point. At least he had the sense to break it up and read it to us in two parts.

A pleasant exercise in the employment of McCall Smith’s gentle style, but not one of his better efforts. Three stars out of five.

About the Author: Gordon Long

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