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At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances
Alexander McCall Smith
Polygon ISBN 0954407598

When the best selling author of the wonderful series of female detective novels ‘The No1 Ladies Detective Agency’ writes something new and indeed begins a whole new series you do wonder if the man has stretched himself too far. He seems to be fantastically prolific, given that he has other jobs to do as well.

I worry in particular that he has in fact ceased to write about Botswana and has taken up with this Professor Dr Von Igelfeld at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg without thinking about the needs and wants of his loyal readers. The Botswana stories may have slight but they were and are magical and inspire many. I know, because I have purchased many copies to give away and every single reader I have given a copy to has immediately gone out and bought the rest. They are that captivating. This switch feels forced and though the writer may feel imprisoned by what he has created in Gaborone, they are perfect little creatures, nevertheless.

However Dr Von Igelfeld, though amusing, is not really funny. It is mannered and written much in the style of a wonderful old book by Edmund Crispin called ‘The Moving Toyshop’. (Penguin Books) but is neither as hilarious or even as eccentric. yet, it most definitely strives to be both. McCall Smith has a distinctive ‘old fashioned’ style and I understand what he is doing here, mocking German and English academia with its arcane rituals and complete disinterest in ‘students’, but to tell the truth Crispin did it better and for that matter ‘Our Man in Havana’ Graham Greene did it with more wit, subtlety and style. You can also catch the same arch flavours and idiosyncratic humour in Lemony Snicket’s ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ written for children who like to be terrified, but there too, once you have read one or two, the plot never actually varies.
I shan’t be addicted to Dr Von Igelfeld, no matter how fantastic his adventures. And that’s a pity. The book itself is divided into two parts. When the Professor visits Cambridge and reveals the delicate nature of the feuding staff there(which would never happen in Germany) and then when he recieves an honour in Columbia, South America and attends the ceremony only to find himself in the middle of coup. (Much like Woody Allen's 'Bananas' only more formal.) Dr Igelfeld is a buffoon to be sure, but the joke wears thin quickly. More about Botswana please.

© Marcel D’Agneau December 19th 2003
Marcel D'Agneau is the author of The Curse of the Nibelung a rare out of print novel

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