Alexander McCall Smith on Corduroy Mansions
When I started writing serial novels in newspapers six years ago, I had no idea that the whole business would rapidly become addictive. My initial foray into this genre of fiction began after a conversation with Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City, which was a saga of life in San Francisco that ran to several volumes. The idea was implanted of starting a daily novel set in Edinburgh, and a few months later I embarked on 44 Scotland Street. After five years of producing a chapter a day for six months of the year, I decided to give Edinburgh a rest for a while and start a tale set in London. Corduroy Mansions, published each day in the online edition of The Daily Telegraph, was the result.
Like any saga, there is a story--but it is not a complicated one. These stories are character-based: what interests me is what makes the characters tick rather than intricate and potentially confusing plots.
There are quite a lot of characters in the story, many of them occupying a rather run-down block of flats in Pimlico that gives its name to the series. We are introduced to William French, a wine merchant who has just turned fifty, but who is in denial about that. He is a widower with a dreadful son, Eddie, who sees no reason to leave a comfortable home and set up independently, in spite of every encouragement by his father. William is admired by Marcia, a caterer who would like to marry him--or anybody really.
William lives at the top of the building. On the floor below is a shared flat lived in by four young women. One of these, Dee, runs a vitamin and health food shop not far away and is a keen exponent of alternative medicine in its various guises, and in particular of colonic irrigation. Then there is Caroline, who is studying for a master’s degree in fine art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
Caroline is fond of James, who is doing the same course as she is. James is very artistic, with a particular interest in the work of the French artist, Nicolas Poussin. James likes Caroline a great deal, but is unsure as to what his real proclivities are. Caroline is optimistic that she can confirm him in the direction she would like him to take, that is as one who is interested in women, but will she succeed?
William, at least, is quite unambiguous in that department: he wants to find a woman. His long-time friend Marcia, however, thinks she just may be his match. In the meantime, William has for company a remarkable dog, Freddie de la Hay, a Pimlico Terrier.
Then there is Oedipus Snark, a Liberal Democrat MP. He is so unpleasant that his mother, Berthea Snark, is writing his unauthorized biography in which she has the intention of dishing every bit of dirt on her son that she can muster. Berthea is the sister of the mystically-inclined Terence Moongrove, an exponent of Bulgarian sacred dance and the unexpected driver of a Porsche.
That is probably all that one needs to know. But even if one cannot be bothered to absorb even those few facts, the story will, I hope, be abundantly clear. This is light social comedy, I suppose, but while I admit that the whole point of the exercise is for the reader to have fun, I hope in this story, nonetheless, to say something about how we live and about how finding love and meaning in the very small things of life may transform us, may make our ordinary lives more bearable.
Set in present-day London, Smith's charming first in a new series offers a variation on his 44 Scotland Street books, centering on the eccentric occupants of Corduroy Mansions and their offbeat doings. William French, a wine merchant, hopes to force his son, Eddie, who refuses to take his hints about sharing a flat with other 20-somethings, to leave the nest by getting a dog whose presence in their apartment he expects will drive Eddie out. William's neighbors include Dee, who works at a vitamin shop and believes a coworker needs to purge his system of excess sodium, and her roommate, Jenny, who works for an odious MP, Oedipus Snark, who treats Jenny like dirt. Smith paints with broader strokes than in his subtle and often moving No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and no one character is especially memorable, but the wry humor he elicits from the collisions of lives and their repercussions will bring smiles to the faces of many readers.
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