Sunday, July 25, 2010

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2002
235 pages

It all started with a BBC radio drama. Specifically, a BBC radio dramatization of this novel. I picked it up to listen to in the car on my way to and from work, and less than halfway through realized that while I was enjoying it, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I remembered enjoying the book. This is always the trouble with me and radio dramatizations or audiobooks -- unless it's a really really good audiobook, I find myself wishing I was reading it instead. I don't think this is normally a function of the quality of the audiobook so much as it is a function of my brain. So I did stop listening to the dramatization and put the book on hold instead.

Happily, the book itself lived up to my memories, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I may even get around to picking up Tears of the Giraffe this time, although I'm not holding my breath for it. This isn't a book that demands a sequel, though it does promise that any books following it in the series are likely to be charming, fascinating, and very pleasant to read.

Precious Ramotswe is the only lady detective in Botswana. She opened her agency with the money she got by selling her father's large herd of quality cattle, and she takes on cases large and small. Small like the case of a daughter's activities making a father nervous (she might be seeing boys) and large like the case of a missing boy, taken for witchcraft. Mma Ramotswe has a secretary, Mma Makutsi, and a dear friend, Mr. J. L. B. Matakoni, and she is very clever and supremely practical. Lest you think this might be a run-of-the-mill detective novel, however, there are chapters interspersed in which we learn more about Botswana; one of my favourite chapters is the one telling the life story of Obed Ramotswe, Mma Ramotswe's Daddy. Though there is one case that does not get solved until the end of the book, and indeed is not mentioned for stretches of the novel, it's not really about an overarching mystery; this book is about little things, little bits and pieces of Mma Ramotswe's life and history and love of Africa.

I like the feel of this book. It strikes me as a celebration of life and a full acknowledgment of its challenges. The characters are complex and not; the setting is both exotic (to me) and universal. I find it hard to believe that the characters McCall Smith has created aren't actually real. I can clearly picture Mma Ramotswe sitting on her veranda with a cup of bush tea, musing over the vagaries of life and Africa and her most recent case. The book is full of gentle wisdom, sometimes gained in harsh ways, and it is so generous of spirit that I think it would be hard not to open up to it.

Recommended for those looking for a mystery with a slower, more contemplative pace. I love learning about other countries through fiction and I love how real McCall Smith's Botswana feels. Overall, a read that makes me feel a little happy and a little sweet melancholy.


Bookwyrme said...

Oh, I love the he No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books! They are slow, relaxed, very focused on character, and the place is so tangibly realized.

Oddly enough, I cannot seem to enjoy McCall Smith's other series. For some reason, the pacing that seems so right in Botswana doesn't work as well in Scotland,and I just don't like the main character.

But I *love* Mma Ramotswe and her determination to find not only the correct solution but the right one, the one that works for people.

Unknown said...

I haven't tried any of his other books, not even the ones for kids. Yet. I would like to, though I've heard a lot of people say the same thing as you: one series will work and his other won't. It seems to vary person to person. I'm really curious to see what the Scotland series is like, myself! I'd also really like to try La's Orchestra Saves the World. So many books, so little time -- he's so prolific! And they take a little longer to read than one might think from the size of them, I find.

I love Mma Ramotswe, too. I love her outlook on life, and how solid and confident she is. She's a marvellous character.

Jill said...

My kids love the Harriet Bean books! I've only read this first one, not sure why, because I enjoyed it very much. I find myself recommending this one to customers at my library a lot because it is appealing to so many different types of readers - those who enjoy mysteries, books set in other countries, character-driven books, etc. I'm interested in checking out that radio play now, even though it sent you running back to the book!

Unknown said...

I'm not sure why I stopped after the first one either. I even found the second one on sale for a dollar at a used book store, so it's not a matter of supply! Now that I remember where we left off, though, perhaps I will start again.

You're right about it's wide appeal, though. The only complaint I've ever heard about it is that it's a little too slow. Which I can see. But it may also be a book that people read differently at different times, too.

Nan said...

I love these books so much. I've thought of sometime buying the whole series. They are beautiful inside and out, a rarity in my experience. Those covers are really special. I love the characters, the setting, the stories, and that slowness. It makes me feel like there are really places in the world that live on a different sort of time.

Unknown said...

I love the way the publisher has packaged this series! It really is gorgeous, and it totally fits the story.

I know exactly what you mean about giving the reader a different sense of time. It's often hard to imagine just how different a country on the other side of the world can be, but these books give a crystal-clear picture of a very different way of life. Yet we can still relate to the characters -- that's one of the things I like so much.

Jeanne said...

I don't care for the Scotland books I've tried, but the Ramotswe ones are all good so far--my favorite is Morality for Beautiful Girls.