Smith has written a series of much-admired bestsellers based in Gaborone, Botswana, where life is enjoyed most when sitting on a porch sipping red bush tea, enjoying the view of acacia trees, listening to Go-Away birds calling, and watching people from the village stroll past. The ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ in the fourteen books, is run by Mma Precious Ramotswe, a sensible woman of traditional size (translation – big woman), so no slinky, svelte types will be found between the pages, unless they happen to be up to no good. Makeup is more or less dismissed as unnecessary (or mostly for those women who are up to no good).
Ramotswe guarantees satisfaction for all parties, and as the clever owner of the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman, that’s a standard she is happy to apply as a matter of personal principle. In “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” she must find a missing husband, follow an errant teenager, and search for a missing child, while keeping her clients happy and herself safe – not easy when witch doctors and cobras might be involved.
The feel-good mystery series has been a worldwide phenomenon and has inspired a BBC TV series as well as a movie. Smith writes from his experience of living and working in Botswana. His descriptions of the countryside make the reader feel that looking for the hippos around the next bend of the river is the natural order of things, where going to the next town is a really big deal and making a 97 on a final exam is cause for endless celebration. Smith has successfully conveyed his love of Africa through Ramotswe’s unabashed pride in her beloved Botswana, whether speaking of snakes or diamonds or witch doctors or the cattle used to buy her business.
Happily, the main supporting characters are well drawn and we as readers are pulled into the relationships as Ramotswe makes her decisions. I was angered, dismayed, touched, and ultimately quite pleased by the behavior of the men in her life.
A later book in the series (from 2010) “The Double Comfort Safari Club,” is not quite as successful as the earlier titles because of one case involving an inheritance to be delivered to the correct person. The resolution seemed to be an odd stretch and made me question whether I could trust Mma Ramotswe’s usually sound judgment. Perhaps it’s a cultural disconnect, but I kept re-reading that section of the book to see if I had somehow misunderstood the issues surrounding the choices.
With that exception, “Double Comfort…” is pleasant, and often demonstrates Mma Ramotswe’s loyalty to the people in her circle. Having been in difficult situations herself, she helps and encourages those in need. Another case, involving a trusted employee whose fiancé has a tragic accident and afterward becomes virtually imprisoned by an aunt, is resolved rather deliciously, underlining Ramotswe’s basic decency. She isn’t always correct in her assessment of the clients, but she is fiercely protective of the ones who need her the most.
No shoot-outs, no car chases, no bloody murders, just enjoyable reads about a woman with common sense born out of an abusive early marriage and a knack for understanding the quirky bits of human nature – important characteristics for the head detective in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
For more information about Alexander McCall Smith and his other famous series, please visit www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk