44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall SmithMany great authors got their start writing serialized fiction for the newspaper, notably Charles Dickens for The Pickwick Papers. The difficulty with serial fiction is that the author has to keep the attention of readers so they will return for further installments without alienating readers who pick up the newspaper or magazine without having read the portions that came before.

Following this tradition and inspired by Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, author Alexander McCall Smith wrote 110 episodic bites of fiction for The Scotsman newspaper. These were the beginning of The Scotland Street series, which is about to wrap up it’s ninth ‘season’ in May 2013 to be followed by the ninth book in the series. I read the first book, collected from the 2004 episodes and published in 2005, entitled 44 Scotland Street.

Serialized fiction rose to prominence in Britain’s Victorian era due to a combination of factors: increased literacy among the general population, changes in printing technology and distribution. Some of my Communication classes would consider the notion of the ‘public sphere’—where people (men of a certain class) come to read aloud and discuss news daily—to be an important factor too. However I feel that it may not have been quite so necessary for serialized fiction.

In an attempt to read the collection as installments, I kept it at the dining room table and read it when I was having a solo sit-down meal. This allowed each bit sized episode, which averaged around two pages long, time to sit with me and digest before moving on to the next portion. I figured this would replicate the original scenario as best as possible: as daily installments published in a newspaper.

The story revolves around the comings and goings at No. 44 Scotland Street, a fictitious building in a real street in Edinburgh. Immediately recognisable are the Edinburgh chartered surveyor, stalwart of the Conservative Association, who dreams of membership of Scotland’s most exclusive golf club. We have the pushy Stockbridge mother, and her prodigiously talented five-year-old son, who is making good progress with the saxophone and with his Italian. Then there is Domenica Macdonald who is that type of Edinburgh lady who sees herself as a citizen of a broader intellectual world.

From the author’s website, AlexanderMcCallSmith.co.uk

The book description states that the characters “arouse mirth and empathy” and deal with “issues of trust and honesty, snobbery and hypocrisy, love and loss”. While I agree that the stories do, I felt the characters were incredibly two-dimensional. Not only is there lack of conviction from many of them, there is also lack of a completed story arc for them. Besides lack of conclusion, my biggest disappointment was there were little to no repercussions for actions taken: Bertie acts out, and his mother does nothing; Angus, Domenica, and Pat find a forgotten tunnel under Edinburgh, no biggie; Matthew and Bruce and Pat have a quasi-love triangle that simply gets acknowledged; et cetera.

The book is labelled as “entertainment but which is underpinned by the moral dilemmas of everyday life and the characters’ struggles to resolve them”. Only one minor ‘struggle’ is actually resolved—the missing painting and the unknown creator is solved. Everything else is left as loose threads to pick up in the next book / season.

You could make two arguments for this tactic. First, that it is an on-going series and nine ‘seasons’ or collected books obviously mean something is working. That without these ‘cliffhangers’, readers would not feel compelled to return. Second, that Real Life doesn’t easily resolve that quickly, and these are honest stories of Edinburgh characters. However, I can debunk those arguments with one example: Coronation Street. While the format is different, they manage to have on-going story arcs, character growth, and reach resolutions without concluding or finishing the story. Admittedly, I don’t know what the very first season of Corrie was like, so it could have been just as disjointed and unfulfilling as I found 44 Scotland Street.