Alexander McCall Smith | The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

book_detective.jpgThe series feels like taking a trip to Botswana in the company of an intimate friend who grew up there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

235 pages. New York: Anchor, 2002. $13.95 (paperback)

“Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.” Now that reminds me of something, but what? Oh yes, it’s Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, which begins “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” And with that clever echo, Alexander McCall Smith signals that the first in his best-selling series of novels about Mma Ramotswe’s detective agency belongs within yet also transcends the tradition of Europeans writing about Africa.

Within the tradition, because Mr. McCall-Smith was born in Zimbabwe when it was still the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, studied in both Zimbabwe and Scotland, and taught at the University of Botswana before returning to Scotland to become Emeritus Professor in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh. So he’s definitely a white British man writing about a Black African culture, although from the point of view of one who has had a great deal of exposure to that culture and values it highly.

Transcending the tradition because Africans are the central characters in this series and their values are incorporated into his stories. Mma Ramotswe is an independent businesswoman who opened the detective agency with money inherited from her father. Her suitor, Mr. J.L.B. Maketonia, is an expert auto mechanic and proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, where he employs two apprentices. The trilingual Mma Grace Makutsi is originally hired as Mma Ramotswe’s secretary, but proves so capable that she becomes both an assistant detective and assistant manager of Mr. Maketonia’s garage.

Mma Ramotswe is proud to be African and even prouder to be Motswama (a citizen of Botswana). She views the people of her community as brothers and sisters and believes it is her duty to help them solve the mysteries in their lives. Her cases are not of the murder and mayhem variety, but more mundane matters of human and business relations: missing persons, credit investigations, suspected fraud.

She solves her cases (there are now 10 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, plus a well-received series of movies produced jointly by the BBC and HBO) using psychology and cultural knowledge. Mma Ramotswe lives in the same world as the people who bring their problems to her, and as a keen observer of human behavior and intuitive psychologist knows how to find out whatever information is necessary to solve a case. The cases themselves are not complex, but their very ordinariness allows McCall-Smith to provide a wealth of historical and current information about Botswana and customs of the people who live there.

And that’s the real delight of the series: It feels like taking a trip to Botswana in the company of an intimate friend who grew up there, and who both loves the country and is unceasingly patient in explaining everything about it. Mr. McCall-Smith may be an outsider, but he has great respect for African culture and builds up a detailed picture of modern life in Botswana through his characters and their interactions. His stories also acknowledge some less positive aspects of African life, the most notable of which is pervasive sexism. But all societies have their flaws, and Mma Ramotswe is not a passive victim; instead, she finds ways to use her knowledge of Botswana from a woman’s point of view to help deliver justice to her fellow citizens.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was originally published in 1998 but has been re-issued in conjunction with the HBO series. Further information is available from the author’s website and the Random House website. | Sarah Boslaugh

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