Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Isabel Dalhousie is fond of problems, and sometimes she becomes interested in
problems that are, quite frankly, none of her business. A highly intelligent
single woman who edits a philosophy journal, she is also a person of
irrepressible curiosity. So when she witnesses a young man fall to his death
from the balcony of Edinburghs main concert hall, she sets out to discover
whether he was pushed or whether, as the police have concluded, he fell. Despite
the advice of her housekeeper, Grace, who has been raised in the values of
traditional Edinburgh, and her niece, Cat, who, if you ask Isabel, is dating the
wrong man, Isabel is determined to find the truthif indeed there is onebehind
the mans death. Her investigation, pursued in an informal fashion, leads her
into the realm of secret deals and private greed among a few members of Edinburghs investment-banking community. While she pursues
information about the likely suspects, Isabel engages in delightfully thorny
debates, with herself and others, about the possible outcomes of moral choices
along the way. Like his immensely popular series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective
Agency, The Sunday Philosophy Club
abounds in wry humor and sharp
observations of human nature.
- Isabel Dalhousie is a single, wealthy, literary woman of settled habits
with a strong interest in moral behavior. In what ways is she a model female
sleuth, and in what ways is she a surprising one? How does she compare with
Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency? How does she
compare with other female detectives in literature?
- Geoffrey McManus is a person with terrible manners. He interrogates
Isabel, wanting to know how the face of the dead man looked as he was
carried out on a stretcher, then he insults her, calling her spinster of
this parish [p. 34]. Toby, too, according to Isabel, has bad manners; she
notes that he reaches eagerly for the largest pieces of the smoked salmon at
dinner. Isabel speaks of the decline of civility [p. 108]. Why are
peoples manners a point of interest for Isabel [pp. 14041]? Should The
Sunday Philosophy Club be considered a novel of manners, in the
tradition of Jane Austen and Henry James? How are manners indicative of a
persons moral philosophy?
- Judging by her realization that even though she wants John Liamor back
he will never return to her [p. 47], it seems that Isabel is the kind of
person who loves only once in life. However, there are hints that her
affection for Jamie might develop further. Does the story suggest that
Isabel and Jamie are better suited to each other than Cat and Jamie?
- Consider the description of John Liamor [pp. 4043] in light of the
best interests test and the personal chemistry test [p. 73]. Is he a good
choice for Isabel? What do we learn about him from Isabels description of
their visit to Ireland [p. 81]? Is her continuing love for him purely
irrational? What drives it?
- Cat is annoyed at Isabels tendency to get involved in things that are
none of her business [p. 69]. Isabel insists, on the other hand, that the
man who fell from the balcony entered her moral spaceand that she
therefore has a moral obligation to him. Is Isabel correct in arguing for
proximity as a basis for moral claims [p. 70]? If she is right in sensing
that part of the reason she wants to pursue the matter is that she is simply
curious [p. 71], how different is she in moral terms from the reporter
- Isabels friendships with her housekeeper Grace and her niece Cat are
reliable comforts in her daily life. What qualities does each woman bring to
the partnership? What do their conversations reveal about the bonds of
- Isabel raises the question of unequal desire in love when she reflects,
We do not like those who are completely available, who make themselves over
to us entirely [p. 74]. Do you feel this accurately reflects Cats
emotional reaction to Jamie? Does this explain Isabels continuing interest
in John Liamor?
- Why is the novel called The Sunday Philosophy Club, if the club
seems to be purely notional, never having met? Are readers the members of
this club, as if by reading the novel they are entering into Isabels mind,
which is constantly engaged in philosophical questioning?
- Having discovered, by following an impulse of vulgar curiosity [p.
111], that Toby is involved with another woman, Isabel wonders whether she
should tell Cat about what she saw. Does she arrive at the most reasonable
conclusion [pp. 11112]? Do you agree with her decision?
- Consider the list of possible suspects: who seems most likely to have
murdered MarkNeil? Johnny Sanderson? Minty Auchterlonie? How reliable is
Isabels intuition about these characters?
- It is Neil who comes to Isabel and tells her of Mark Frasers knowledge
of insider trading at his firm [p. 117], thus turning the case into an
investigation of a murder. How surprising is the ultimate revelation of how
Mark died, and why? How is the crimes solution linked to the theme of truth
- What sexual undertones are revealed in Isabels thoughts about Jamie
[pp. 127, 133], her thoughts about the reason for Cats preferring Toby to
Jamie, and her helpless attraction to John Liamor? Why are these
undercurrents so prevalent, and how are they tied to the ongoing threads of
- The Edinburgh setting is a crucial element of The Sunday Philosophy
Club. It is a city where respectability is highly valued, but, according
to Isabel, is also built on hypocrisy: Respectability was such an effort
though, and there were bars and clubs where people might go and behave as
they really wanted to behave, but did not dare to do so publicly [p. 55].
Edinburgh is also associated with philosopher David Hume, who wrote An
Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, among other books. Is
Isabel an exemplary product of Edinburghs Protestant bourgeoisie, or not?
What aspects of her life, or her character, place her in the position of
outsider [p. 2067]? Who in the text best represents traditional Scots
- How would you characterize Isabels sense of humor? Is she a
companionable narrator? If so, what qualities make her sensibility
satisfying for a reader?
- How is The Sunday Philosophy Club not typical of the mystery
genre? How central to the reading experience is the mystery of how and why
Mark Fraser died? Are other aspects of the plot equally interesting?
- Readers of The Sunday Philosophy Club, the first novel in a new
series, have the pleasure of speculating on how the characters and plots
introduced here may be developed in the books that follow. What would you
like to see happen in the future? If you have read Smiths No. 1 Ladies
Detective Agency novels, how might the Isabel Dalhousie series follow
similar lines? How might the very different characters and settings
influence the development of this new series?
W. H. Auden, Collected Poems;
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey;
Anita Brookner, The Rules of Engagement;
James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner;
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals;
Ian Rankin, The Falls;
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night;
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde;
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie;
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
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