Muse, Thy Name is McKnight

A SMU professor and his wife keep turning up in novels.

PAGE TURNERS: The McKnights do it by the books.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a sorta-mystery set in Botswana, came out in 2002 and spent 74 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Dallas readers might have noticed something besides the book’s gentle humor. It was dedicated to “Joe and Mimi McKnight in Dallas, Texas.” Late last year, the name-dropping continued. Only this time, in The Right Attitude to Rain, the third title in another McCall Smith series, Joe and Mimi McKnight were characters in the novel. Joe was a professor of law at SMU, and his wife Mimi was a cousin of Isabel, the book’s central character.

“His interests were antiquarian, and these were shared by Mimi, who dealt in rare books,” McCall Smith wrote.

Joe McKnight is indeed a professor of law at SMU. Mimi owns a catering business, and the couple does have a book collection. They got to know McCall Smith, a Scottish law professor-turned-writer, when he did a stint as a visiting professor at SMU in 1988. The friendship blossomed and years later, McCall Smith dedicated The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to the McKnights.

McCall Smith says the McKnights popped up in The Right Attitude to Rain because he admires their sense of humor. “I often put real people into my novels (with their consent, of course!),” he writes in an e-mail. “I find that this makes the books more vivid for me.”

Mimi says, “It’s really funny because a lot of people who I knew years ago or even back when I was in college called up and said, ‘I happened to notice that you were in the book.’”

Joe has just one quibble with his character. In the book, the two Americans visit Scotland and turn their noses up at Marmite, a salty paste Brits like to spread on toast. “I rather like Marmite,” Joe says.

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