I quite enjoyed the first two or three of Alexander McCall Smith’s sweet-tempered No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, but my interest flagged beyond that point. I read the initial book in another one of his series — the man is truly indefatigable — but wasn’t sufficiently intrigued to follow through. When a pre-publication galley of Corduroy Mansions fell into my hands a few months ago, I thought it looked somewhat more substantial than my last taste of his work so I read the whole thing… faintly wondering why I continued to turn the pages.
The title more or less says it all: Corduroy Mansions is the nickname of a slightly run-down but friendly apartment building in Pimlico, a prosperous area of London. On the top floor lives plump fifty-year-old wine merchant William French, who is tortured by the fact that his twenty-something son Eddie refuses to move out, pay rent, or even wash the dishes. This is pretty much the height of conflict in the book. Other characters undergo different trials, the most entertaining of which is Berthea Snark’s visit to her loopy brother Terence Moongrove. Terence, something of an innocent,engages in spiritual dance and almost inadvertently buys a Porsche after a serious misadventure with a previous car’s battery. Smith’s world in this book is a comfortable one of prosperous well-educated people who come to no greater harm than severe discomfort or embarrassment. In a way, Corduroy Mansions is like a more benevolent version of an E.F. Benson novel, in which Lucia turns out to have a heart of gold and Miss Mapp’s social scheming is prompted by an innocent misunderstanding of other people’s motives.
The whole book has the air of a story that a pleasant, kindly uncle tells you on a very long car trip. The narration moves from character to character, from one mild dilemma to another leaving many plot points hanging: will Martin ever get over Dee’s offer to give him a colonic irrigation treatment? Who is this Annette that James takes up with? Will Freddie de la Hay have to go back to live with the vile Manfred? (Freddie de la Hay is a dog, and probably the most sharply-delineated character in the novel.) The incidents are very loosely held together by the walls of Corduroy Mansions but the ensemble is quite shapeless. And while it’s appealing, the appeal is temperate. You might even say tepid. Maybe I’d like Smith better if he were just a little bit more malicious?