Review: The Quiet Side of Passion by Alexander McCall Smith

Erich Mayer

This novel has a fast-moving, entertaining plot that raises some ethical questions.
Review: The Quiet Side of Passion by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith's The Quiet Side of Passion. 

Alexander McCall Smith is addicted to story-telling. Fortunately he is rather good at it, as witness the more than eighty books he has published. His background in bioethics makes him well qualified to introduce ethical problems in his writings.

The Quiet Side of Passion is McCall Smith's 12th novel featuring Isabel Dalhousie, still happily married to Jamie and mother of Charlie and Magnus. McCall Smith manages to write this novel, as the others in the series, in such a way that it can be read without reference to any other of his books. This is no mean achievement and sets a good example to those writers of series who fail miserably in that respect.

Apart from a lively plot with exciting and unexpected twists, McCall Smith uses Isabel, who falls in love with philosophy after reading Plato's 'Symposium' at the age of sixteen and is now the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, to raise philosophical and ethical questions. One of the major issues explored is to what extent, if at all, one should interfere in the lives of others in order to prevent harm. In the process, McCall Smith ponders how this problem can be exacerbated by assumptions based on insufficient knowledge of all the facts.

Because Isabel is a philosopher she thinks of the writings of 'Aristotle, Kant, Hume, all of them' when having a discussion, or perhaps it is an argument, with her housekeeper, Grace, about a particular decision. Grace knows by intuition what is right and what is wrong. For Isabel, though, intuition is the result of reflection on experience – as McCall Smith puts it, 'Intuition was the impulse buy; reflection was the considered purchase.'

Another point raised in the novel is whether it is appropriate to right a wrong by force. Isabel is a believer in the power of words, but a good friend of her niece thinks otherwise.

McCall Smith lives in Edinburgh, a city which he loves and which is where all the action in The Quiet Side of Passion takes place. He introduces the odd Scottish word to emphasise meaning, much as multilingual people tend to do when a word in another language is more aptly suited to the occasion. And, through the mouth of Isabel, he vents his antipathy to the overuse and miss-use of the word 'awesome'. 

Maybe because Edinburgh is a city of many statues, McCall Smith has Isabel discuss a submission to the Review of Applied Ethics concerning the taking down of statues such as that of Cecil Rhodes. The author of that submission 'thinks that you can't correct everything, but you can erect competing monuments, or put some sort of footnote on the existing one[s]’.  

While this review may give the impression that this novel is an educational text in disguise that is far from the case. It has a fast-moving, entertaining plot that raises some ethical questions, and is at the same time populated by believable characters like Isabel, whose musings on ethical questions and on other matters add an extra dimension to one’s enjoyment of the novel.

Rating: 4 ½ stars ★★★★☆

The Quiet Side of Passion
Part of Isabel Dalhousie Series
By Alexander McCall Smith
464 Pages
ISBN: 9781408709436  
Format: PaperBack  
Release Date: 12/06/2018
RRP $29.99
Little Brown Book Group

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog