Review: Charming cast of eccentrics peoples 'Corduroy Mansions' by Alexander McCall Smith

Corduroy Mansions is like the cloth of its title — comfortable, easy, homey. Illustrated whimsically by Iain McIntosh, these short chapters or vignettes evoke the serial magazine writing of another era. Character names, too, seem to be an homage to British writers of the past — Swift, Fielding, Dickens — who were fond of descriptive appellations such as Roger Thwackum, the nasty tutor in Tom Jones. In Corduroy Mansions, an "oleaginous MP" is named Oedipus Snark; his putative girlfriend is Barbara Ragg; there's a writer named Errol Greatorex; and a neighbor, Miss Oiseau, who has "a thin, reedy voice."

The story begins with William Edward French, a widower, 51, self-described as "average height, very slightly overweight . . . no distinguishing features. Not dangerous, but approach with caution." A wine dealer, William lives in Corduroy Mansions, the nickname for a block of flats in London's Pimlico neighborhood, with Eddie, the adult slacker son he dearly wishes to offload. Marcia, a caterer, has an unrequited taste for William and tries to entice him with her cooking. Sometimes he comes home to discover "a plate of only-the-tiniest-bit-soggy chicken vol-au-vents, or cocktail sausages impaled on little sticks, like pupae in a butterfly collection."

Filled with charming eccentrics, Corduroy Mansions is like a small 18th century village with big 21st century angst. Thrown into this mix are a vegetarian dog, Freddie de la Hay, a former "sniffer dog at Heathrow Airport," who is brought in by William to scare off his canine-phobic son, and Berthea Snark, Oedipus' psychoanalyst mother, who hates her son ("I've been visited by dreams in which I have done something terrible to him").

The discovery of a possibly stolen painting provides a McGuffin, as does a manuscript written by a yeti. Alexander McCall Smith, best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books set in Botswana and a master of weaving complex stories, does so here with virtuosity. He satirizes the manners of his characters but, as always, remains deeply affectionate toward his flawed cast. And so, dear reader, will you.

Corduroy Mansions

By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, 368 pages, $24.95

Review: Charming cast of eccentrics peoples 'Corduroy Mansions' by Alexander McCall Smith 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 5:30am]

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