Nothing captures the charm of Edinburgh like the bestselling Isabel Dalhousie series of novels featuring the insatiably curious philosopher and woman detective. Whether investigating a case or a problem of philosophy, the indefatigable Isabel Dalhousie, one of fiction's most richly developed amateur detectives, is always ready to pursue the answers to all of life's questions, large and small. Isabel has been asked to discreetly investigate the candidates for the position of headmaster at a local boys' school. The board has three final candidates but has received an anonymous letter alleging that one of them is not suitable.What she discovers about the candidates is surprising, but what she discovers about herself and about Jamie, the father of her young son, turns out to be equally revealing. Isabel's investigation will have her exploring issues of ambition, as well as of charity, forgiveness, and humility, as she moves nearer and nearer to some of the most hidden precincts of the human heart.
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ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and was a law professor at the University of Botswana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SATURDAY EVENING,” remarked Isabel Dalhousie. “A time for the burning of ears.”
Guy Peploe, seated opposite her in the back neuk at Glass & Thompson’s café, looked at her blankly. Isabel was given to making puzzling pronouncements—he knew that, and did not mind—but this one, he thought, was unusually Delphic.
He stirred his coffee. “I’m not quite with you, Isabel. Not quite. Burning ears?”
She smiled. She had not intended to be opaque, and it was Guy, after all, who had brought up the subject of Saturday evenings; she was merely picking up on the theme. He had mentioned an opening he had attended last Saturday, a show featuring a Scottish realist painter who had been ignored in his lifetime but who was now lauded as a genius. Everybody had been there; which meant, he said with a laugh, everybody who went to Saturday-evening openings at galleries. The remaining four hundred and eighty thousand people who lived in Edinburgh and its immediate environs had presumably been doing something else.
That had triggered Isabel’s remark about burning ears, which she now went on to explain. “What I meant is that on a Saturday evening,” she said, “there are always a number of dinner parties in Edinburgh. The same people go to dinner with the same people. Backwards and forwards. And what do they talk about on these occasions?”
“Those who aren’t there?” suggested Guy.
Isabel agreed. “Exactly. And there are certain people who are talked about a lot. This is not a particularly big pond, you know. In some ways it’s a village.”
Guy nodded. “All cities have their villages,” he said. “Even the big ones. London claims to be full of them. New York too.”
“But New York has a village,” said Isabel. “It’s called the Village. Which is helpful, I suppose.”
Guy laughed; Isabel’s wry comments, dropped as asides, could seem so arresting even if, when you analysed them, it was hard to say why: this was an example. There was nothing exceptional about what she had said—not on the face of it—but the comment about helpfulness tripped one up.
“Of course,” Isabel continued, “to use the definite article about one’s village demonstrates—how should one put it?—a good conceit of oneself. That clan chief called the MacGregor: Does he correct people who call him a MacGregor? Would he have to say ‘No, the MacGregor, please’?”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” said Guy. “People like that are usually very modest. If you’ve been on the go for five hundred years, you’re usually fairly low-key about it.”
Isabel thought that was quite true. She knew a Nobel laureate who referred to “a little prize they were once kind enough to give me—totally undeserved, of course.” That took some doing, and some strength of character too; how many of us, she wondered, would hide a Nobel prize under our bushel? Her friend had heard the news, she remembered his telling her, through a message left on his telephone answering machine. This is the Nobel Committee in Stockholm and we are delighted to inform you that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize this year for . . .
But there was something else to be said about MacGregors. “You do know that their name was interdicted?” she said. “James the Sixth, I’m afraid, reacted rather harshly to some bit of bad behaviour by the MacGregors and made their name illegal. It’s an odd notion, don’t you think? Making a name illegal. They had to start calling themselves things like Murray and so on.”
Guy knew that. Isabel had spoken about it before; she often brought up the Stuarts, for some reason that completely escaped him. People had their historical enthusiasms, he supposed, and the Stuarts were not exactly a tedious dynasty. It might have been better, he thought, if they had been; better for them, that is.
“Mind you,” said Isabel, “it has to be said that James the Sixth was a somewhat miserable piece of work. I’ve tried to like the later Stuarts, you know, but I have to say it’s an effort. Charles the First was such a weak and self-indulged man, and by the time we get to Bonnie Prince Charlie the genes had gone pretty bad. James the Sixth, I suppose, was far brighter than most of them, but he must have been rather difficult company much of the time. Interesting, though: gay kings usually are.”
“Didn’t he have a wretched childhood?” said Guy. “That’s sometimes an excuse, isn’t it? The fact that one has had an awful time as a child can explain so much, can’t it?”
Isabel reached for her cup of coffee. “Does it? I wonder. I think that there’s a case for putting your early years behind you. Plenty of people have done that. They grow up and then draw a line.”
Guy considered this. “Yet the early years won’t necessarily go away. If you’re desperately unhappy when you’re young, aren’t you damaged goods?”
Isabel was prepared to concede this of James VI. “He had that awful tutor, that Buchanan man, who intimidated him.”
Guy nodded. “An inhumane humanist. Very grim.”
“And James,” Isabel continued, “was brought up in such a loveless atmosphere. A major case of maternal deprivation. Then his mother had her head chopped off, we must remind ourselves. That hardly leads to happiness. And his father was blown up, wasn’t he? Again, not a good thing for a parent, or for anyone, actually.” She paused, warming to the theme, which was a favourite one of hers. She thought Henry Darnley, Mary’s husband, was vain and scheming, a narcissist, and even if one would not wish an explosion on anybody, there were some who did seem to ask for it. “And even before he was blown up he would hardly have been a particularly good father, murdering Mary’s secretary, for heaven’s sake, and having all those affairs.”
She glanced about her. A woman at a nearby table was listening, and not bothering to disguise it; did she realise, Isabel wondered, that they were discussing events of four hundred years ago? But let her listen. “Then, of course, when some light comes into James’s life at last, it is taken away from him.”
“His cousin,” said Isabel. “Esmé Stuart, his cousin from France. He turned up in Scotland when James was thirteen, and James fell in love with him. He was very beautiful, by all accounts, and James at last had a friend. Poor boy.”
The eavesdropper’s eyes widened involuntarily.
He wrote poetry, Isabel continued. This sad boy-king of Scots wrote poetry. After Esmé Stuart had been forced out of Scotland by scheming nobles, James had written a poem about a rare Arabian phoenix coming to Scotland and being persecuted. “That was Esmé,” she said. “The boy he loved. He disguised him in the poem as a female phoenix because, well, in those days . . . It was so sad. And they are lovely lines—full of sorrow and loss.” And well they might have been, she thought. What sorrow there must be in loving somebody who does not love you back; or loving somebody whom the world says you cannot love.
They both fell silent. Then Guy said, “You were talking about ears burning.”
Isabel toyed with her cup. “Yes. There are a few people in this city who know that every Saturday their names are going to be mentioned at numerous dinner parties. They know it. Imagine that, Guy. Imagine knowing that there are ten, maybe twenty, tables at which you are being taken to pieces and then put together again—if you’re lucky.”
Guy made a face. “Uncomfortable.”
“Yes. Deconstruction always is. And that’s where the burning of ears comes in. If there’s any truth in the idea that your ears burn when somebody’s talking about you—and there isn’t, of course—then imagine the ears of these unfortunates. They must glow like beacons in the night.”
“Gossip,” said Guy. “Nobody should worry about gossip. There’s no need for ears to burn.”
Isabel looked up sharply. “Oh really? Don’t you think that gossip can be pretty wounding?”
“Yes,” said Guy. “Malicious gossip can. But a lot of gossip is mild—and really a bit pointless.”
Isabel agreed. “Utterly pointless,” she said. “Look at those glossy magazines that publish tittle-tattle about the doings of celebrities. None of these people actually does anything of any worth to anybody. Not really. But do people like to read about their private lives? Yes, they do. And how. He breaks up with her. She buys a house in France or is seen on so-and-so’s boat. She goes to the gym, and is photographed coming out of it. And so on and so on. Why do people read that sort of thing?”
“Do you read them?” asked Guy.
“Me? Of course not,” said Isabel. She paused. Even as she gave her answer, she realised that this was not true and would have to be corrected. One should never mislead a friend, or an enemy for that matter, she thought. We owed the same duty of truthfulness to everybody, no matter what we thought of them. “I don’t buy them, but as for reading—well, never, that is, never unless my teeth play up.”
Again Guy looked at her blankly.
“I read them when I go to the dentist,” she said. “There are some magazines that we read only when we go to the dentist. Mine has all of them in his waiting room. He also has those ritzy fashion magazines with advertisements for expensive designer sunglasses and so on, and magazines about boats. He has a boat, he told me. So I read these magazines from time to time. But only at the dentist’s.” She looked at him apologetically. “Should I feel ashamed?”
Guy shook his head. “No. We all have guilty pleasures. Yours is harmless enough.” He paused. “But back to burning ears. Who are these people whose ears burn?”
Isabel smiled. “The principals of schools,” she said. “Listen next time you go to a dinner party. People talk about the principals of their children’s schools. They do it all the time.”
Guy digested this. He frowned. “Strange.”
Isabel shrugged. “It keeps people going. Not that these teachers do anything dramatic—or not usually, although there was a good bit of gossip doing the rounds last year when one of the schools appointed a new head of French and then unappointed—or, should we say, disappointed—him before he even arrived to take up the job.”
Guy said that he had heard about that—vaguely.
“The rumour mill went into full-time operation,” said Isabel. “There were all sorts of stories going the rounds.”
“Amazing things. One I heard was that he had applied under a false name and was wanted by the French police. The French police! I suppose to be wanted by the French police is somehow more exotic than being wanted by other police forces. It can’t be very glamorous to be wanted by the Glasgow police—rather ordinary, in fact—but the French police, now there’s a cachet.”
“And the truth?”
“The board had a change of heart. They had their reasons, no doubt, but these were probably pretty prosaic, and no reflection on the candidate. The French police wouldn’t have come into it, I would have thought.”
Guy changed the subject. He had a catalogue that Isabel had expressed an interest in seeing, and he had brought it to show her. There was an auction coming up at Christie’s in London, and there were several paintings, including a Raeburn, that Isabel said she had heard about. Now, as he put the glossy publication on the table, Isabel went straight to one of the pages he had marked with a small, yellow sticky note.
“Sir Henry Raeburn,” said Guy, as Isabel opened the catalogue. “Look at it. Portrait of Mrs. Alexander and Her Granddaughter.”
Isabel studied the photograph that took up most of one of the pages. A woman in a white-collared red dress was seated against a background of dark green. Beside her was a young girl, of eight perhaps, half crouching, arms resting on the woman’s chair.
“His colours,” said Isabel. “Raeburn used those fabulous colours, didn’t he? He occupied a world of dark greens and reds. Was that the Edinburgh of his day, do you think?”
“Their interiors were like that, I suppose,” said Guy. “Those curtains. Look.”
Isabel reached out and touched the photograph, her finger tracing the line of the fabrics draped behind the sitters. “I find myself thinking of what their world was like,” she said. “When was this painted? Does it say?”
“It’s late Raeburn,” said Guy. “Eighteen-twenty? Something like that.”
“So this little girl,” said Isabel, “might have lived until when? Eighteen-seventy, perhaps. If she was lucky.”
“I suppose so.”
“And then her own daughter—the great-granddaughter of our Mrs. Alexander—would have lived from, let’s say, 1840 until 1900, and her daughter from 1870 until 1930 or even 1940. Though she was actually a bit older when she died.”
Guy looked at her enquiringly. “Oh?”
Isabel sat back. “My paternal grandmother,” she said. “Which makes her”—she pointed to the girl—“my four-times great-grandmother.”
Guy’s surprise was evident. “So that’s why you asked me about this. You’d heard?”
“Yes. I knew that one of my ancestors had been painted by Raeburn—two, in fact. My father told me about it when I was a teenager—he showed me some of the Raeburns in the Portrait Gallery, and he said that on his mother’s side we were Alexanders. The painting was mentioned in one of the books about Raeburn, but its whereabouts were described as unknown.” She pointed to the catalogue. “Until now.”
Guy nodded. “I see. Well, that makes this sale rather important to you. Do you want to go for the painting?”
Isabel reached out to take the catalogue. Opening it, she turned to the full-page photograph. “What do you think?”
Guy shrugged. “It’s a fine double portrait. Everything that makes Raeburn such a great portraitist is there. The ease of it—he painted very quickly, you know, which gives his paintings a wonderful fluidity. That’s there. And the faces . . . well, they’re rather charming, aren’t they? The girl has a rather impish look to her. Perhaps she was planning some naughtiness, or Raeburn was telling her an amusing story to keep her still while he worked. It’s very intimate in its feel.”
Isabel thought that this was right, but it was not what mattered to her. What mattered was the link that existed between her and two people in the picture. My people, she thought. My people.
“How much do you think it’ll go for?”
There could be no clear answer to this, and they both knew it. “It depends. It always depends in an auction. You never know who’s going to be in the room. You never know who’s going to take a fancy to a painting. Some people have deeper pockets than others.”
She wanted him to put a figure on it, and she pressed him.
“Forty thousand pounds,” he said. “Something like that. But you could be lucky and get it for twenty-five...
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