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Imagination Off-Leash In 'Corduroy Mansions'

Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific Scots writer constantly expanding his fictional empire with new series and stand-alone novels, is beginning to seem like the kilted literary equivalent of a celebrity chef maniacally darting between restaurants in his culinary kingdom. Staying on top of all of his running series -- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Isabel Dalhousie, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, 44 Scotland -- must be daunting. But clearly, some people thrive on overstimulation.

In late 2008, McCall Smith channeled his spillover imagination into a comic serial novel about the inhabitants of a genteel, comfortably worn apartment block in London's Pimlico neighborhood. Originally published and podcast by the Daily Telegraph in 100 daily Web episodes, Corduroy Mansions is part of a grand old tradition of serialized novels. Two prominent practitioners were Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who often dashed off installments to keep creditors at bay. For McCall Smith, one assumes the pressures are internally imposed.

In book form, Corduroy Mansions shows its slightly disjointed, episodic provenance. Considerable charm, however, lies in the quirky collection of characters and high-spirited tone of this rambling tale. Among his protagonists is a Pimlico terrier named Freddie de la Hay, "who had been employed as a sniffer dog at Heathrow airport … but had been dismissed as part of an affirmative action programme when it had been discovered that all the dogs at the airport were male." This led to "a policy of equal opportunity for female sniffer dogs." Sublimely ridiculous, of course, but for McCall Smith, a professor of legal ethics, it's yet another opportunity to ponder moral issues: "Should one treat animals fairly?" In other words, Corduroy Mansions is filled with McCall Smith's irrepressible, occasionally pedantic observations and prescriptions about how one ought and ought not to live and behave, though he leavens the earnestness with more silliness than usual.

On the top floor of Corduroy Mansions, William French is a prematurely stodgy, widowed wine dealer eager to push his rude 23-year-old son, Eddie, out of the nest. He finds help in this endeavor from his friend Marcia, a caterer who is equally eager to push her way into William's nest. Several young, unmarried women share the third floor flat directly beneath William's. Caroline is studying toward a master's degree in Fine Art and barking up the wrong tree with a classmate who may be gay. Jenny works as an assistant to an awful politician, Oedipus Snark; the running joke about him is that he is so dreadful, even his mother, who gave him that ridiculous name, can't stand him.

McCall Smith allows his imagination free rein, wandering from residents of Corduroy Mansions to characters only tangentially related to the building. There's some funny business with Snark's mother, a therapist, and her daft brother, who nearly electrocutes himself trying to recharge his car battery with direct current. McCall Smith wraps up his 100 installments with a celebratory party, but he leaves plenty of room to run off in new directions should he decide to take these characters out for another spin.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.