This was one of those instances where I am made to wonder, why has it taken me so long to finally get acquainted with a writer whose writing is as delightful as this?
And looking at the extensive list of works Alexander McCall Smith has been busy churning out long before I had realised what I was missing, I’m gonna have a lot of catching up to do! But I’m sure this will be one task I won’t be complaining about having to take on.
Because I have truly fallen in love with the quiet, gentle yet quirky sense of humour of McCall Smith.
The Dog Who Came In From The Cold is actually the second book in the Corduroy Mansions series. Though I may have been late in joining the party, I’m glad it didn’t take long for me to warm up to the ensemble of characters within these pages and found myself comfortably drawn into their lives and going-ons.
While the central thread of the story involves the reader following the adventures encountered by William French (a failed Master of Wine, wine merchant) and his Pimlico Terrier (interestingly named, Freddie de la Hay) when they have been recruited by the MI6 to help infiltrate a Russian spy ring (you have to read the book to see how this works), there are a a host of other sub-plots taking place at the same time while the other denizens of Corduroy Mansions tackle issues of their own.
What I found to be most endearing of all, were the subtle and beautifully observed descriptions on the pysche of the dog, Freddie. Reading them never failed to put a smile on my face. 🙂
Here are some of my favourites.
An introduction to Freddie’s vocabulary.
William looked at Freddie. “Freddie, old chap,” he said. “I really must do something about getting myself a lady friend. You know how it is, don’t you?”
Freddie looked up at William, listening attentively. He had a very limited vocabulary, a small number of words that he recognised, and he was straining to pick up one of these. Just one. Walk or biscuit would do very well; but now he could make out no such profoundly welcome sounds, and he resigned himself to staring at his master, ready for what was coming next, whatever it was.
A little bit of Freddie’s background & upbringing.
Freddie de la Hay glanced up at his owner. He was aware of the fact that a remark had been addressed to him, but of course he had no idea what it was. He was a well-mannered dog, though, and he wagged his tail in that friendly way dogs have of encouraging their owners. Freddie de la Hay valued William highly, not simply because he was his master, but because he was what the Americans refer to as a pre-owned dog, and as such he had a distant memory of somebody else who had not been as kind as William; who had made him eat carrots and use a seatbelt when he travelled in the car; who had forbidden him to chase cats and squirrels, lecturing him sharply if he set off in the pursuit of either. It had been a world of unfreedom, a world from which all joy and canine exuberance had been excluded, and he did not want to return to that dark and cold place. William was to be valued for that – for rescuing him from bondage, from durance vile.
Freddie’s conspiracy theory.
This, then, was the person who took Freddie de la Hay into her flat in Notting Hill and introduced him to the place where he would be sleeping that night. After which she led him into the kitchen and gave him three large dog biscuits from a newly purchased box of Happy Dog Treats.
Freddie glanced down at the biscuits and then up at Tilly. Why was he here? What was going on? Where was God (William)? Why was the world so large, so strange, so filled with curious scents? (The sort of question that must have been posed by Iris Murdoch’s dog.) There were cats somewhere about, somewhere not far off – he could smell them. Did they have something to do with this devastating alteration that had befallen him?
Freddie being made a conscript.
Sebastian Duck made a gesture of helplessness. “He’s a volunteer,” he said.
It struck Tilly as a callous remark, and she frowned and looked away. Freddie de la Hay was not a volunteer; no dog was. Every single one of them was a conscript, just as most of us were, ultimately, in many aspects of our lives. We were conscripts, she thought, in battles that very few of us actually chose. We worked and worked, often in jobs that we did not really like; we paid taxes, and yet more taxes; we shouldered the burdens of awkward relatives whom we did not choose, who were just there, issued to us at birth; we lived in places because that was simply where we found ourselves. Conscripts.
Freddie de la Hay looked up, first at Tilly and then at Sebastian Duck. More biscuits, he thought.
Freddie has his views.
For Freddie de la Hay it was just another walk, although he felt a bit strange wearing this new, rather heavier-than-usual collar. But it was not for him to argue with the choice of collar or lead: this, he recognised, was the domain of the humans in whose shadow he led his life. He had his views – which were strong enough, and sometimes vocal – on subjects such as biscuits, squirrels or smells, but when it came to the broader parameters of his life, as laid down by humans, Freddie understood that this was simply not his sphere. Had he possessed the words to express it, he would no doubt have said that this was part of the social contract that existed between man and dog, which had been negotiated a long time ago, presumably not long after the first dog had stood outside the early human cave, which was redolent of warmth and charred meat and comfort, and whined to be admitted. That was the moment that sealed the fate of both parties, but particularly of dogs. Man did not ask to join dog, dog asked man, and was therefore the supplicant to whom no concessions needed to be made.
Freddie missed William. Having no real sense of time, he had no idea how long William had been gone from his life. In human terms, it was less than a day; in dog terms, it could have been a month, a year, half a lifetime. He just knew that William was not there and might never be there again. But he did not dwell on what might or might not be; dogs do not see the point, they are concerned only with what is happening now, and with the possibilities of the present moment.
To be fair, it must also be noted that McCall Smith’s tender observations are not just limited to canines. He is equally spot on when it comes to giving one a glimpse of how the human heart works as well.
William’s sense that all was not well in his life, an incipient, nagging doubt, had now become a full-blown conviction. There were many reasons for this, but one of them –possibly the most important one – was simple loneliness. Just as Freddie de la Hay was missing him, so too was he experiencing that sense of incompleteness one feels when a familiar presence is suddenly no longer there. Such feelings can be profound and long-lived, as when we lose a close friend or a member of the family – at that level, we are in the presence of true grief – or they may be less substantial, more transient, as when a shop or coffee bar we have grown to like closes down, or a favourite office colleague is transferred. These may seem little things, but they constitute the anchor-points of our lives and are often more important than we imagine. If we lose enough of these small things, we risk finding ourselves adrift, as William now felt himself to be.
If you have never given Alexander McCall Smith’s works a try, I would strongly urge you to. Waver no more. Pull it out if you have this or any of his other books sitting on your shelves. You will be in for a real treat.
Dog lover or not. 😉