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

no1lda

Precious Ramotswe has had a tough life. Her father has passed away after a long, painful illness. She’s survived a disastrous marriage to a ne’er-do-well musician, and miscarried a child. What should she do with the modest legacy her father has left behind?

Start a detective agency, of course.

It’s the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman, and after a little hoopla and media attention, she settles down into the routine of a small businessperson trying to meet the monthly expenses. Who in Botswana is going to want to hire a lady detective, anyhow? Lots of people, it turns out. Precious is a natural detective. She has a sharp eye for detail and a good memory. She listens patiently and sympathetically to people’s problems, and the clients begin coming to her, in ones and twos, then more regularly. She handles a variety of small cases—unfaithful husbands, rebellious children, con artists and embezzlers. She gains a reputation as somebody who solves problems.

One day, she encounters a more serious mystery—a missing child may have been murdered, and powerful people are implicated. Memories of her own lost child haunt her, and this case becomes an obsession. She must find the answers, no matter what the cost.

Alexander McCall Smith lives in Scotland, not the sort of fellow you’d expect to pen The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, first in a series of detective novels featuring a woman in Botswana, but he was born not far away, in Zimbabwe, and taught law at the University of Botswana. He visits regularly. His affection for Africa and its people comes through loud and clear. This is a story that savors the slow pace of life on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, the summer’s relentless heat and broad blue skies.

Precious is a fabulous character. A woman of progressive ideas, and a “traditionally-built African lady,” she moves through the male-dominated culture of Botswana with grace and style. She’s comfortable in her own skin, proud of her accomplishments, and filled with unquenchable love for her homeland and its people. No obstacle is insurmountable, given a little thought, and patience, and a good cup of bush tea. She obtains guidance from an obscure book on private investigation, and inspiration from Agatha Christie, but she doesn’t really need it. Precious has all the intellectual tools a good detective needs, plus the confidence and audacity to stick her nose in where society says it shouldn’t be allowed. She gains many admirers along the way, including two very eligible bachelors, but she insists she’s through with husbands and wants to focus on her new career.

There are no sensational crimes, intractable puzzles, or drawing-room confrontations in this book. The cases Precious handles might seem rather mundane, but they are of paramount importance to her and her clients. She solves them mostly through persistence, keen observational skills, and old-fashioned common sense, leavened with compassion for both victims and perpetrators. It’s a very human story, and I was fascinated by the interactions among the characters. I didn’t care so much about the crimes—Precious was going to figure out what happened, no doubt of that—I wanted to find out who she was going to meet along the way, and what they were going to talk about.

Smith has written a very charming story, with an insider’s feel for the people and territory of Botswana and its neighbors. Like much of Africa, the story moves at a tranquil pace that allows the reader to savor its images and characters. It’s a great book for a sunny summer afternoon.

HBO has produced a television series based on the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, but I haven’t seen it, and I don’t really have any plans to. The book’s good enough on it’s own.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. I love this series – have seven of them and got the eighth from the library. A good friend shoved them at me some years after the two of us had been in West Africa, and although that’s som distance from Botswana, there is enough similarity that the books dragged me right into the setting. Yes, that’s what Africa feels like. Wonderful writing.

  2. I love these books and the hbo shows. I can’t get enough of these fabulous characters. I was ready for the slow pace and watched the dvds over and over again. While the shows are great, I find I like the books for their pace and authentic-feeling characters…the HBO shows are sweet and capture the soft feel of the books. But the books seemed funnier and more human to me – a little less pretty. I’m impressed by the accents they all were able to learn! (most of the key actors are American or British black actors, though one I think is an African working in Africa). I would love to see a movie of this series with more Africa-based African actors and a Mma Ramotswe that feels a little more like the one one the book. Jill Scott is lovely and v. good, yet she never quite feels like the Mma I got used to reading about. She is a bit too young, pretty and untouched. I also don’t feel the wisdom, earthiness and depth that the Mma Ramotse character has…Other than that Jill Scott was very good and played the part well). Ironically, for me the best actor was the American mother searching for the son that was missing in Africa. I forget the actor’s name. Her facial and voice inflections made her appear to me to be a far superior actor than all the others – I think that is actually the case as she has lots more experience than the other females – she is on TV alot). Great work. Keep them coming!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Janet! I’ve still not seen the HBO series (alas, my cable package doesn’t include that channel), but I’m with you–I’d love to see this series get the big-screen treatment.

      Fred

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