04 January, 2014

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. Book review

Abacus 2008. ISBN 978-0-349-11675-4. 233 pages.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana in the 1990s.  All the characters are fictional.

Mma Precious Ramotswe is the first and only lady detective in Botswana. Having established the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with a modest legacy from her beloved father Obed, she now sets herself to solving her clients’ problems, large and small. In this she has the help of her secretary, Mma Makutsi, various old friends and acquaintances at the hospital and in the police, and the shy Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. But her greatest assets are her own powers of observation, intelligence, and a keen appreciation of the foibles of human nature.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a highly enjoyable, light, quick read. The book is structured more like a collection of linked short stories than a novel, making it easy to read in short snatches of time. Most of the cases occupy a single chapter, and there are also stories describing Mma Ramotswe’s childhood and her father’s time working in the South African mines. A sweet and understated love story runs through the book as a common thread.

Most of Mma Ramotswe’s cases are human puzzles, rather than serious crimes. Sometimes no crime at all has been committed.  Where crime is involved, it is more likely to be fraud or theft than murder, and when Mma Ramotswe solves the case and confronts the miscreant, matters are usually resolved swiftly and humanely.  Even when darker aspects intrude, such as traditional witchcraft and a potential clash with the local organised crime boss, they do not overshadow the generally wholesome atmosphere.  The most chilling aspect of the novel is the description of Obed Ramotswe’s time in the mines, which is safely in the past.  Readers who expect a mystery novel to be packed with danger and drama may find The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency something of a let-down; conversely, readers who like a tale full of engaging characters and human eccentricity will find much to enjoy.

Botswana is described with great affection. Mma Ramotswe is proud of her country and has a deep love for its landscapes, wildlife and culture (both traditional and modern).  This is all the more effective because the affection does not tip over into sentimentality. The harshness of the dry landscape is recognised as well as its beauty, the very real dangers posed by wildlife such as cobras and crocodiles are accepted, and the drawbacks of traditional culture are acknowledged. For example, Mma Ramotswe recognises that the tradition of supporting relatives is open to abuse by ‘charlatans and parasites’, as she puts it. Women in particular can be appallingly badly treated. The kindly cousin who brings up Mma Ramotswe as a little girl has been abandoned by her first husband in favour of another woman, and then treated as a despised domestic slave by her own mother and grandmother – all of which is accepted as quite normal.  Mma Ramotswe herself has an abusive marriage in her past. The cousin hopes that this state of affairs will change for the better, and takes great care to educate little Precious Ramotswe.  By the time of the novel it is evidently possible for women who have some money of their own to live independently and to own businesses and property, as Mma Ramotswe does, yet it is still accepted as normal for a woman to have her career path blocked regardless of her ability (“I don’t think I can get any higher because all the men are afraid I will make them look stupid,” as one character says).

Characterisation is deft and vivid, with even minor characters given individual personalities in a few bold strokes. As the central character, Mma Ramotswe is described in most detail, with her strong sense of right and wrong, compassion, warmth and shrewd insight into human behaviour. She is not always infallible, though, as demonstrated by the case where she completely (and comically) fails to anticipate the client’s reaction when presented with the requested evidence.

I found it useful to have an atlas to hand to locate the main places mentioned in the text, as there is no map in the paperback.

Enjoyable, warm-hearted collection of tales from the casebook of Botswana’s first lady detective.


Constance Brewer said...

A book set in Botswana? That alone is worth a look.

Carla said...

Constance - yes, the book is a fun read anyway, but the setting adds something extra. Hope you enjoy it!

Marlia said...

They have also made a TV series based on the books- you may know this. It really reflects the warmth of the books.

Carla said...

Marlia - Hello and welcome! Yes, it was a BBC adaptation, wasn't it? I've only seen one of the programmes, and I remember liking it. For some reason I missed the others.