Friday, January 11, 2008

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

by Alexander McCall Smith

Started: 22 December 2007
Finished: 11 January 2008

Absolutely charming! One of the sweetest stories I’ve read in a long time. Okay, laugh at this booklady. I know, I know. The book was published in 1998—ten years ago and I’m just getting around to reading it for the first time? No excuse. I have seen it and even owned a copy for a several months. What can I say?

Ordinarily I’d have been sad when I finished a book this enjoyable, this readable, this joyous and life-affirming. But wait! There are seven sequels already published and a movie coming out as well! Hurrah! No need to have to lament saying goodbye to the book’s heroine, Precious Ramotswe. Sorry but I have no idea how to pronounce any of these African names; I have to look three or four times at the text to make sure I even spell them correctly! And it’s my only complaint (if that’s even the right word) about the book, that there are a fair number of names spelled very similarly so it takes carefully reading to keep the parade of client characters straight.

Precious (don’t you love it?) or Mma Ramotswe has a detective agency in Botswana, at the foot of Kgale Hill. Mma is the local honorific for females; Rra is for males.

She starts her two bit detective agency with two desks, two chairs, a telephone, an old typewriter and no gun. She is self-described as a “traditionally built” African woman, who drives around the dusty roads of her beloved country in a tiny white van, incapable of high-speed chases and not even safe from roadside snake invasion. Quite an image isn’t it? The numerous references to her generous proportions would lead you to believe that our Lady Detective is . . . um, rather on the large size. But that doesn’t seem to stop her—or even slow her down much.

The author, Alexander McCall Smith, writes with a straight-forward simplicity reminiscent of Hemmingway. His novel is a celebration of life, land and good old-fashioned values. You will keep going back to check the copyright date and the beginning of the story in curious wonder. Does a place like this still exist on this planet? Botswana is lovingly portrayed as Precious’s home, a land of endless skies, devoted people and slow-moving ways that Western society forgot or lost decades ago.

Mma Ramotswe believes in justice, acts on instinct and is as humorous as she is refreshing. She is joined in some of her investigations by her shy suitor, J. L .B. Matekoni. There is a loose over-arching mystery holding the entire book together consisting of a series of smaller conundrums which our hefty heroine solves with wit, wisdom and wiles. And there is even a dab of romance and a dash of melancholic longing thrown in to round out the story.

‘Mma Ramotswe walked back towards her van, not wanting to intrude upon the intimate moments of reunion. She was crying; for her own child, too—remembering the minute hand that had grasped her own, so briefly, while it tried to hold on to a strange world that was slipping away so quickly. There was so much suffering in Africa that is was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.’ (p230)

And it would be a mistake for you to walk away from this story. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may not be great literature, but it is as delightful as a summer rain and just as welcome. Treat yourself to a case or two with Precious. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her as much as I have; I’m off to the library to get the second book in the series, Tears of the Giraffe.


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