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the daily review, wed., july 27

Alexander McCall Smithhandout

Before the close of the second paragraph of The Dog Who Came In From The Cold (the second of the Corduroy Mansions series), Alexander McCall Smith seeks to amuse his audience by trotting out a groaner of a pun. In Latin. "Caesar adsum iam forte," he writes, "Pompey ad erat." Go on, sound it out. Like most of this book, it's actually quite funny - sweet, even - in an English sort of way.

Reviewing this book is a bit like reviewing jam. It's a nice little confectionery, difficult to actively dislike.

Its author (who also seems a nice man, despite being a professor of medical law and a bioethicist) has cunningly constructed the work from gossamer, balsa wood and the entire contents of the Oxford English Dictionary.

He guides us along swimmingly, using chapter headings to ensure we don't get lost. Dee is Exposed as a Liar. Caroline Turns to Jo for Advice. Eddie Upbraids William. Villains are quickly identified by name (we know that Oedipus Snark is not a nice man) and we are always sure what the author is thinking and would like ever so much for us to think too.

All of which is fine, because this very nice man is clearly a far greater brain box than we could ever endeavour to be. And he writes in a very nice, very witty and oh-so-English way. Where else would we learn that in Singapore, not flushing the loo is a criminal offence? Or hear a woman's attractive bum described as a "well-placed gluteal mass?" Or be reminded of the work of Flanders and Swann? Where else but in a McCall Smith serial novel?

With its large cast of characters and slate of stories, this gentle book tends to meander to the point of being aimless. Reading the series' first book isn't strictly necessary. There is little a prospective reader can't learn about this book's premise by reading its dust jacket (it features "the comings and goings of the wonderfully motley crew of residents" of the "elegantly crumbling" Corduroy Mansions). Everything else you need to know is ably and wittily spoon-fed by the adept stylings of McCall Smith.

Nor is it a spoiler to reveal that the dog of the title - who is pressed into service for the MI-6 - is briefly imperilled and then rescued.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (or the Mansions), the citizens of the motley crew eat cucumber sandwiches and have romantic misunderstandings and leap out of bushes dressed as the Green Man of legend. It all generally works out, most of the story lines (but not all) are wrapped up, and there are few surprises.

One of those few surprises is just how beautifully McCall Smith can write, when he isn't sticking to genre. His story of Barbara and Hugh's sleeper-car trip to Scotland is a lovely short piece, reminiscent of The New Yorker fiction of the 1940s.

And then there's the sampling from the yeti's autobiography (yes, I said "yeti's autobiography"). It's a wonderful passage. How one longs to hear from the yeti again - but alas! The last we see of our literary yeti is him fleeing a bookshop, with his publisher in hot pursuit.

Perhaps the yeti will decide to write more some day. I do hope so. He's a simply wonderful writer.

Diane Baker Mason is a lawyer and novelist, just like Alexander McCall Smith, and is the author of Last Summer at Barebones and Men With Brooms.