This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith's widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to help people with problems in their lives. Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.
The story tells how Mma (aka Precious) Ramotswe struggles to get the only detective agency run by a woman in Botswana off the ground. Smith, a native of Zimbabwe, intermixes several story strands, including Mma Ramotswe's back story. She deftly solves mysteries large and small without violence or high-tech equipment. Smith uses the stories to take the reader to a little bit of southern Africa.
A very enjoyable read. Often compared to Agatha Christie with some justification, Mma Ramotswe is a worthy and wise fictional character in her own right. She narrates her own tales with a delightful light and commonsensical tone. Highly recommended.
If anything, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, without all the crass pizazz at times threatens to be so low-key it slips off the radar. But clearly, given the series's popularity, it's not. This is subtle, subtle work Smith is doing to create a balanced mystery of the kind I haven't encountered before.
*I also really appreciate a mystery that's solved using good old-fashioned common sense and detective work (see how much plain old "following the person of interest" Precious does in her white van), instead of through genius, unlikely deductions, or technobabble.
The hype around this book has always made me wary and, if pressed, I would probably have bet money on the fact it would be a DNF if I ever bothered to start it. So it's just as well I'm not a gambler because I read the whole thing in a single setting and was completely entranced the entire time.
I'm not quite sure how a white, male Scottish law lecturer speaks so authoritatively in the voice of a black woman from Botswana but it certainly feels authentic. Everything from the design of the cover to the language of the opening passages transported me immediately to Africa and that sense of place was never lost. My favourite thing about the story is that it is full of good, hardworking, fun-loving people because it's not a picture often painted about Africa. Mma Ramotswe is clearly the main character and is the most well-develped but there are other terrific characters including the deceptively simple Mr J L B Maketoni.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as a light read but it does tackle important issues such as domestic violence, poverty, loneliness and the differences between what is legal and what is moral or just. It just does it gently rather than with copious amounts of blood and gore. While I like those books too I found this one an unexpectedly delightful read: one of those books I feel grateful to have found.
Mma. Ramotswe, the Agency "fat lady detective" loves Botswana. Her love extends to all people - but especially her own. In Sunday school, she learned early in life about "good and evil". Later, she suffered a disastrous marriage and the pain of losing a child. Left money by her deceased father,(a gripping section recounts his time as a miner) Mma. Ramotswe sinks the lot into setting up in business as Botswana's first female private dectective. With few assets, ("a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone...an old typewriter") no track record, the Agency needs to pay its way.
Mma. Ramotswe has a gentle, commonsense approach which (allied to her woman's intuition) is useful in helping people "sort out their "difficulties" in a mixed bag of puzzling situations (not necessarily crimes): one client is worried about the company his sixteen-year old daughter keeps; another suspects her husband of playing around; a man claims recompense for loss of a finger; the dramatic swings in the standard (according to the day of the week) of medical care provided by a hospital doctor; missing persons, including the disappearance of an eleven-year old boy, with possible links to witchcraft. These mini-cases, entertaining, if not all that complex, give fascinating glimpses into the African cultural experience, the lives of the people of Botswana.
The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, ultimately, is as much about Africa itself, as it is about crime detection:
"I am just a tiny person in Africa but there is a place
for me and for everybody to sit down on this earth"
Mma.Ramotswe, the No.1 Lady is good company, a breath of clear African air.
The stories often feature simply described men, looking for an easy life, and readily outwitted by precious. These however manage to capture a generous and free way of traditional life, so different from the author's Scottish and most reader's western way of living.
3-stars: Read at least once and recommend selectively (to people who appreciate intercultural reads)
Well, I can definitely see why she likes them, and why a lot of people like them. They're...very nice, and I mean that genuinely, not as a back-handed compliment. The books are quietly funny, and there's a good, sturdy backbone of perseverance and dignity in the face of great hardship and tragedy. Precious Ramotswe is a really interesting character—she has a fascinating background, and is clever, with a deeply moral center. I like her. I just wish...well, I wish there were more of a plot. The book is mostly anecdotal, and the few through-threads get resolved in a kind of half-assed way. Minor spoiler: Smith has Mme Ramotswe refuse several proposals of marriage, and then at the end, she just suddenly says yes. Bwah? He offers *no clue* as to why she suddenly changes her mind. Maybe it'll be explained in the next book in the series? Which, yes, I totally will be reading, because Smith is nothing if not addictive.
As other have no doubt noted, the descriptions of Africa and it's people are loving. They make me homesick for a place I've never been.
“She remembered somebody saying that at night we are all strangers, even to ourselves, and this struck her as being true.”
This one illustrates the humor McCall Smith sometimes slips in, and I chuckled over his question at the end, as if directly addressing the reader with a droll smile on his face as he wrote it:
“She had heard that people did not like lawyers, and now she thought she could see why. This man was so certain of himself, so utterly convinced. What had it to do with him what she did? It was her money, her future. And how dare he say that about women, when he didn’t even know that his zip was half undone! Should she tell him?”
And this one:
“How terrible to be a man, and to have sex on one’s mind all the time, as men are supposed to do. She had read in one of her magazines that the average man thought about sex over sixty times a day! She could not believe that figure, but studies had apparently revealed it. The average man, going about his daily business, had all those thoughts in his mind; thoughts of pushing and shoving, as men do, while he was actually doing something else! Did doctors think about it while they took your pulse? Did lawyers think about it as they sat at their desks and plotted? Did pilots think about it as they flew their aeroplanes? It simply beggared belief.”
Mr. Smith's simple style of writing disguises a more thoughtful, pensive underlay. As Mma Romatswe goes about detecting,her actions and thoughts are goverened by the basic rules of morality and kindness that she learned at her late father's knee. How refreshing to be reminded of basic decency in such an entertaining way.The lyrical way that Mr.Smith describes the surrounding countryside gave me a glimpse of the stark beauty and restless habitat of a wilderness. He effortlessly weaves the picture of a developing nation and it's Capitol into the storyline in such a way that I began to feel I had actually been a tourist there.
The characters that become a part of Mma Ramotswe life each bring their distinct personalities into play and make this book hard to put down once you start reading it. The cases that are accepted by Mma Ramotswe are diverse and vary in nature and complexity. However,Mma Ramotswe tackles each one with the energy and ingenuity that make it hard to wait to get your hands on the next book in the series.
The book is also something of a departure from your typical mystery in that most of the solutions rely more on Mma Ramotswe’s knowledge – and manipulation – of human nature than on sets of clues presented in such a way that the reader can guess along. Readers who prefer the latter type of mystery may be put off my McCall Smith’s approach, so I recommend that people approach this book more as an enjoyable read than an interactive experience. There are frequent references to Agatha Christie, but I’m not sure that the author is aiming for the same thing at all.
McCall Smith's love for Africa shines through on every page, and it's that more than anything else that makes this such a delightful read. It's a book about the land and the people, and the author does a beautiful job of giving the reader a sense of both. He's particularly good at writing dialogue in such a way that the reader gets an instant sense of just how each character talks. We learn about these characters through their demeanor and their actions as much as through the little background details McCall Smith provides.
Overall, this was a quick, heartwarming read. I’m looking forward to trying more of the author’s work.
Though presented as a novel, The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency is more like a collection of short stories, telling the tales of the first few cases Mme Ramotswe has to solve in her newly established detective agency. As such, each story evokes different emotions. The woman with the cheating husband is hilarious, the story of Mme Ramotswe's father's life is heartbreaking, and the cases of the doctor and the missing boy are the most like real mystery stories. All of it is linked together by a simple, heartwarming central relationship and the author's love for the setting of Botswana.
No, the reason to read this book is like Dickens, McCall Smith has a voice that burrows into the subject and characters and makes the world he shows us larger than the world we see with our own eyes.
The author has a clear grasp of what one should as an accomplished writer. A voice. This may be a genre novel, but the use of words is so clear that you can see Africa in a way you had not expected. You can see the people that Botswana is inhabited with, in a way that you did not think words so succinctly could describe.
That is the genius of the style McCall Smith has found. Each step builds to the next, and Precious Ramotswe becomes a loved person that is as good to remember as Tiny Tim, or Huck Finn, or anything Chaucer came up with.
This is a must read if you like reading. And thankfully portrays Africa, not as a stereotype, but as a strong continent, with much to offer the rest of the world. (Botswana of course is actually an exemplary nation.)
Mma Ramotswe uses her inheritance to open the first woman-owned detective agency in Botswana, and despite her initial fears that she will have no clients, she quickly takes on several diverse cases. She solves them all successfully (although for some, the final outcome is unexpected), handling each case with common sense, empathy and straightforwardness that more than make up for her lack of experience.
The cases are related as a series of vignettes, each in its own titled chapter, so that they almost read like short stories. The common threads that tie them together are Precious’s evolution as a detective, her gentle courtship by her mechanic friend and her concern over the kidnapping by witch doctors of an 11-year-old boy, which is the emotional axle on which the book turns.
Along with the large and large-hearted Mma Ramotswe, Botswana itself is an integral character in the book. Its traditions contrasted with its recent development as a modern, independent country and its friendly, open people who take such pride in that development — even its deadly snakes — all make for a fascinating setting. Just as this is not just another mystery, this is not yet another example of dark Africa or victimized Africa, but rather shows a different side of Africa. The characters are warm, generous, relateable and able to laugh at themselves while taking deserved pride in their accomplishments. This is an Africa I want to visit again and again.