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.