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Smith will charm you with trilogy

Ron Bernas Detroit Free Press

Can Alexander McCall Smith do anything wrong?

Just a few months ago the author of the international hit series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” came out with the charming start of a new, more moralistic crime series, “The Sunday Philosophy Club.” In December he published “The Girl Who Married a Lion,” a book of retold African tales.

He’s starting the new year off with a series of funny, charming – there’s that word again, but it perfectly describes Smith’s style – crime-free novellas about an out-of-touch, insulated German academic, Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld.

“With a name like that,” says one character, “he could hardly be anything but entertaining.” That’s absolutely right.

The first of the trilogy is called “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” – which also happens to be the title of Von Igelfeld’s claim to fame, a monumental scholarly work of Romance philology about which one critic wrote: “There is nothing more to be said on the subject. Nothing.”

The work made von Igelfeld a giant in his admittedly microscopic field, loved by philologists the world over. And yet, somehow, that hasn’t made his life easier. He is constantly surprised that someone of his academic stature doesn’t receive universal respect.

Smith’s three books, which he calls entertainments, are short and related, but easily stand on their own. Indeed, even the stories within each novella can be read without reading the others.

“Portuguese Irregular Verbs” introduces von Igelfeld with the good professor’s rant on noses. Take, for instance, his colleague, Professor Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer:

“A difficult nose, which can afflict anybody, may be kept in the background by a modest disposition of the head; Unterholzer, by contrast, thrust his nose forward shamelessly, as might an anteater, with the result that it was the first thing one saw when he appeared anywhere. It was exactly the wrong thing to do if one had a nose like that.”

And if von Igelfeld has such strong views on noses, imagine what he must feel about things that truly matter – like sausage dogs and people who talk in research libraries.

Those two subjects are prominent in the second of the three volumes, “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs,” in which a typographical error leads von Igelfeld to a guest lecture in the United States – as an expert in veterinary medicine. His attempts to salvage his pride and not tip his hand to his solicitous hosts are hilarious.

And in “At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances,” von Igelfeld becomes embroiled in academic intrigue at Cambridge and in a coup d’etat in Colombia. Preposterous stuff, to be sure, but it’s immensely entertaining.

Each story provides a little life lesson von Igelfeld is surprised to learn but, unfortunately, doesn’t take to heart for very long: “It was good to be alive, he thought. Life was so precious, so unexpected in its developments, and so very rich in possibilities.”

Smith spins a magical web with the unexpected developments and rich possibilities of von Igelfeld’s rarified world.

Readers will be, well, charmed.

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