In an Alexander McCall Smith novel, 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. (Also, it’s best to keep him away from your dog, but more on that later.)
Unlike Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s No. 1 lady detective, or Isabel Dalhousie of the Sunday Philosophy Club, 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. His magnum opus is a 1,200-page scholarly treatise, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which, for some reason, never found a wide audience.
McCall Smith hasn’t checked back in with the professor for 10 years — or, to calculate it another way, it has been dozens of novels, essays, short stories and children’s books since he has.
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: Unterholzer married a dentist on whom von Igelfeld had vague romantic designs. Von Igelfeld was responsible for amputating three legs of Unterholzer’s dachshund, Walter, while impersonating a dead veterinarian. It was my least favorite McCall Smith subplot ever. Excuse me while I go hug my dog.)
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, as does poor Walter.
The von Igelfeld books lack the warmth of the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series. But McCall Smith calls them “entertainments,” and — so long as canines aren’t involved —the stories provide that in spades.
Yvonne Zipp reviewed this book for The Washington Post.