Alexander McCall Smith was on ebullient form last night, and with his irrepressible giggle escaping at regular intervals, he repeatedly had the audience in stitches. He clearly entertains himself as much as he entertains the readers of his 100+ books – it is now 20 years since he started writing the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and the 44 Scotland Street and Isabelle Dalhousie series are still going strong, though he was in Oxford chiefly to promote the first novel of his new ‘Scandi blanc’ Detective Värg series, The Department of Sensitive Crimes.
Or was he? Actually, he simply seemed to have come for some fun and a good night out.He apparently does over 60 promotional events a year, whilst also finding time to write four or five books and fulfilling his duties as Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the
His new lead character, Ulf Värg (the Danish and Swedish for Wolf, so effectively ‘Wolf Wolf’) is a character in the same mould as his other protagonists - a man whose great moments are small, delicately presented moments of private pride and joy, such as when he fixes the King’s bicycle. There is also Bjorn Värg, the leader of a political party called The Moderate Extremists, who has to confront an act of treachery as someone has been passing secrets to another party, The Extreme Moderates (!).
Marten, the series’ dog, follows other renowned McCall Smith dogs, such as Cyril in 44 Scotland Street, the only dog in Scotland with a gold tooth, and Freddie de la Haye of The Dog Who Came in from the Cold (a victim of political correctness sadly made redundant from his job as a sniffer dog at Heathrow because the authorities had noticed that all the dogs were male, who becomes an MI6 spy). Marten is, however, a Scandi dog, which means he has problems ‘as all Scandi characters must’ – he is hearing impaired and suffers from Seasonal Affected Disorder...I think that is all we, the audience, actually learned about the new book, but it really didn’t matter as we were so enjoying McCall Smith’s gentle humour, which is, of course one of the chief features of all his books.
Lucy the interviewer asked him about the gentleness of his books, and commented on how much people need and like this aspect of his writing. For a moment McCall Smith became serious and said that he had ‘great sympathy with people who want something in their life but don’t quite get it’, and how small things matter to people. He also said that ‘you can make a very serious point about the world with a light touch’, that ‘there is no point in worrying too much and being seized by despair, even though you have to be aware of the despair of the world’ and that ‘as a writer you have to empathize with everybody’.
Alexander McCall Smith’s books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide. So why does he keep writing? ‘Because I have great fun writing them’. We certainly had great fun listening to this gentle man with his infectious joie de vivre and mischievous sense of humour, and a good evening was definitely had by all.