A Conspiracy of Friends
“A delightful book for summer reading.”
It’s back to Corduroy Mansions, the slightly dilapidated but well-lived-in mansion block in London’s hip Pimlico neighborhood for the third installment in Alexander McCall-Smith’s series.
It seems the universe itself is conspiring against the residents of Corduroy Mansions as they all find themselves struggling with their nearest and dearest.
Oedipus Snark’s mother, Berthea, is still at work on her scathing biography of her son—the only loathsome Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament; literary agents Rupert Porter and Barbara Ragg are still battling each other for first crack at the manuscript of Autobiography of a Yeti; fine arts graduate Caroline Jarvis is busy exploring the blurry line between friendship and romance; and William French is still worrying that his son, Eddie, may never leave home, even though Eddie’s got a wealthy new girlfriend.
But uppermost in everyone’s mind is William’s faithful terrier, Freddie de la Hay—without a doubt the only dog clever enough to have been recruited by MI6—who has disappeared while on a mystery tour around the Suffolk countryside.
Will Freddie find his way back to Pimlico? Is Corduroy Mansion starting to crumble?
A Conspiracy of Friends’ first few short and snappy chapters introduce the reader to a large gathering of zany and somewhat bizarre characters: Barbara Ragg, Basil Wickramsinghe, Caroline Jarvis, Dee Binder, Eddie French, Freddie de la Hay, Jenny Hedge, Jo Partlin, Marcia Light, Terence Moongrove, William French, and of course, Berthea and Oedipus Snark.
Some of the more humorous chapters are with Berthea, unofficial biographer of son, the roguish cad, Oedipus:
Berthea could not imagine Oedipus doing such a thing. In fact, she found it difficult to remember when her son had last given her a present; not that she held it against him, even if she had noted it as a point that she might at least touch upon in a suitable chapter of the unauthorized biography of him that she was currently writing. And that was the second of his distinctions: there are few, if any, examples of hostile biographies written by mothers. Berthea, though, was well advanced in her plans, and the manuscript of the work provisionally entitled My Son Oedipus was already two hundred and ten typewritten pages long.
That took us only as far as the end of Oedipus’s schooldays. He had been sent to boarding school when he was ten, spending a short time at a very dubious prep school in the West Country before winning a scholarship to Uppingham. The prep school, now closed down by the authorities, was found to be a money-laundering scheme dreamed up by an Irish racehorse owner; and while the boys were for the most part entirely happy (not surprisingly, given that the headmaster took them to the racetrack three times a week), their education left a great deal to be desired.
Oedipus, though, had thrived, and had won the Uppingham scholarship by arranging for another boy at the school, an intellectual prodigy, to impersonate him in the scholarship examination. This had the desired result and brought, rather to the surprise of his mother, an offer of a full scholarship, covering the cost of tuition and boarding.
“I know I’m failing as a mother,” Berthea confessed to a friend at the time. “I’m perfectly aware of that. But, quite frankly, much as I love my son, I’m always relieved when Oedipus goes off to school. I know I shouldn’t feel this, but it’s as if a great load is lifted from my shoulders each time I see him off. I feel somehow liberated.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the friend. ‘And you mustn’t reproach yourself. Your son is a particularly unpleasant child—I’ve always thought so.”
This verdict on Oedipus was shared by almost all his contemporaries at school. When she had advertised in the school association magazine for “recollections—no matter how frank—of the schooldays of Oedipus Snark, MP,” she had been astonished by the unanimity of opinion.
“I remember Oedipus Snark quite well,” wrote one of her informants. “He was the one we all disliked intensely. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, as I gather that you’re his mother, but we really couldn’t stand the sight of him. What on earth possessed you to have him?”
And then there was this from another:
“Can you give me his current address? I promise I won’t pass it on to anybody. I just want to know—for my own purposes.” Of course Berthea did not pass on her son’s address to that particular correspondent. She did not want Oedipus to meet any physical misfortune; she wanted him simply to be exposed, to be made to confront his shortcomings, to accept responsibility. And was there anything wrong with that? she wondered. Does it make me any the less of a mother for wanting to see justice done?
With such a large ensemble and equal amount of plot lines, it would be easy for the reader to get lost, or worse, lose interest.
Thankfully, Mr. Smith skillfully keeps full control, allowing his unique storytelling voice to be the ultimate guide.
Despite its being part of a series, first time readers of Corduroy Mansion can jump straight in and feel right at home. A delightful book for summer reading. Don’t be surprised if you become addicted to the entire series.