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