Originally created 02/29/04

Detective writer makes history by publishing book in a daily newspaper



LONDON -- What is it that Bruce sees in the microwave of the apartment he is sent to survey? Why did Anna vacate the room Pat now has, leaving behind clothes, papers and a distinct feeling of unease?

And Domenica Macdonald, who lives across the hall from Bruce and Pat and drives a high-powered, custard colored Mercedes, seems to know more about Bruce than she's letting on.

Welcome to "44 Scotland Street," the latest work by Alexander McCall Smith, one of detective fiction's hottest authors, and a new serial in The Scotsman.

The Scottish daily newspaper has begun serializing the story about a group of Edinburgh roommates, and readers are invited to express opinions. It will appear daily in 850-word installments over the next six months.

Publication began Jan. 26 and in the first week, the serialization added around 3,000 readers daily, according to the paper's book editor, David Robinson. That has fallen off a little since but there has been "a welter of positive e-mails from readers," he said. "I don't remember any other Scotsman promotion being this successful."

McCall Smith, who created the hit novel "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," about a woman private detective in Botswana, has already completed the first 50 installments and has another 70 still to do.

"You could say I am living dangerously," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"Stylistically, it is rather different. You have to get an incident into each installment to keep people reading and you are dealing with the characters in real time. This is turning into more of a comic novel because I'm having such fun with the characters."

McCall Smith wants to know if readers relate to his characters, who include Pat, a student taking a break from her studies; Bruce, a vain surveyor; a freelance anthropologist and a furniture maker. They live, according to the first installment, "on the edge of the Bohemian part of the Edinburgh New Town, the part where lawyers and accountants were outnumbered - just - by others."

"I'm reasonably open about this," McCall Smith said. "If someone writes in and says, 'I know someone like that and they wouldn't do that,' I would think about changing things."

So far, Robinson said, teenage girls seem to have a thing for Bruce. "Alexander McCall Smith has taken note of this and he has now written a scene with Bruce in the shower," Robinson said.

Many 19th-century novelists - including Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Count LeoTolstoy, Henry James and Honore de Balzac - serialized their work weekly or monthly in newspapers or magazines.

Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" was a weekly serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s. In 1996, Penguin Group, Stephen King's publisher, put out his prison novel, "The Green Mile," in six slim monthly installments and in 2000, King himself published another work, "The Plant," as a serial on his Internet site; readers paid $1 per installment.

Dave Eggers, author of the best selling "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," is currently serializing a work-in-progress on Salon.com. With a first chapter entitled "The Unforbidden Is Compulsory or, Optimism," Eggers' novel is a political satire set in California.

Tom Holman of Britain's Bookseller magazine said such deals - although still comparatively rare - can benefit both author and newspaper.

"The author gets the publicity and the newspaper gets the sales," he said. "And the publisher gets a chance to raise the author's profile and pulls in new readers."

The decision to publish McCall Smith's new book in a daily paper came about after the author wrote an account of a conversation with Maupin for The Scotsman.

"We are very excited to be doing something so unusual which gives our readers a chance to interact with one of Scotland's best writers," Robinson said.

McCall Smith said he was drawn to serialization by the idea "of connecting with a wider audience who may perhaps not read books otherwise. This also makes my work much more immediate."

Details of the deal were not disclosed by the author or the newspaper.

The style of "44 Scotland Street" is relaxed, but shows McCall Smith's fine eye for detail and understanding of character, as in this excerpt from the second installment, where student Pat talks to her father after a meeting with Bruce, the handsome surveyor whose apartment she plans to share:

"'And work?' he asked. 'When do you start at the gallery?' 'Tuesday,' said Pat. 'They're closed on Mondays. Tuesday's my first day.' 'You must be pleased about that,' said her father. 'Working in a gallery. Isn't that what most of you people want to do?' 'Not in particular,' said Pat, somewhat irritated. Her father used the expression you people indiscriminately to encompass Pat, her age group, and her circle of friends. Some people wanted to work in a gallery, and perhaps there were a lot of those, but it was hardly a universal desire. There were presumably some people who wanted to work in bars, to work with beer, so to speak; and there were people, plenty of people, who would find themselves quite uncomfortable in a gallery. Bruce, for instance, with his rugby shirt and his en brosse haircut. He was not gallery material."

McCall Smith, a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, is best known for his novels featuring private detective Precious Ramotswe. Worldwide sales of the books recently passed the 3 million mark. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" was short-listed for the American Booksellers Association book of the year in 2003.

First published in 1988, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" has been followed by several well-received sequels.

On the Net:

The Scotsman, http://www.thescotsman.com