The return of McCall Smith’s impressively obtuse professor
In his new book “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil,” Alexander McCall Smith brings back the delightfully obtuse Professor von Igelfeld.
The Washington Post
“Unusual Uses for Olive Oil”
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor, 203 pp., $13.95
In an Alexander McCall Smith book, main characters are so careful of the feelings of others that they can spend hours parsing an interaction with a grocery-store clerk and use marmalade to unlock the mysteries of humanity.
Then there’s Professor Dr. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil.” The scholar at Regensburg’s Institute of Romance Philology combines the demeanor of an absent-minded professor with the vanity of a Real Housewife.
Unlike Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s No. 1 lady detective, or Isabel Dalhousie of the Sunday Philosophy Club, Professor von Igelfeld is impressively obtuse. This allows him to suffer humiliations galore without a dent on the old ego. The von Igelfeld stories don’t so much delve into philosophy as fling their main character into mayhem. He’s a literary Mr. Magoo, emerging unscathed from Colombian coups, insulting pontiffs and tennis duels.
As “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil” opens, von Igelfeld’s less-illustrious colleague, Professor Dr. Dr. Detlev-Amadeus Unterholzer, has been named a prize finalist. Von Igelfeld immediately heads to Berlin to put a stop to this undeserved accolade. (He and Unterholzer have a long history.)
During the course of the five new stories in this collection, which is as delightfully silly as the main character is pompous, von Igelfeld embarks again on romance, courtesy of the matchmaking efforts of the impressively optimistic Ophelia Prinzel, wife of the department chairman and only relatively normal guy at the institute. An Alpine reading tour with a spot of mountain-climbing and an invitation to deliver a dinner lecture follow. The olive oil makes an appearance in the last story.
The von Igelfeld books lack the warmth of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series. But McCall Smith calls them “entertainments,” and the stories provide that in spades.