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 witch doctors.
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.
Alexander McCall Smith lived a number of years in Botswana, and his love of the country and it's people emanates from every page, be it in MMA Ramotswe's remembrances of her childhood, or in the descriptions of the land and it's people.
There are bad people to be found within the pages, to be sure, but their evils are attenuated or overcome by MMA Ramotswe's innate ability to understand people and see beneath their outer appearance. In fact, one soon grows to love the "traditionally-shaped" heroine, her secretary, and her friend RRA Makatoni, the proprietor of Speedy Motors.
Smith has other series, but the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency eclipses them all.
The books have been adopted into a series which airs on HBO.
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.
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)
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.
“How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, and who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eating grass? None, in her view; none at all, and yet they did not know it. Every so often you met a white person who understood, who realized how things really were; but these people were few and far between and the other white people often treated them with suspicion.” (p. 162)
“She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party – with a chance of government perhaps – but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try pass legislation, but would fail.” (p. 195).
Anyway, welcome to Botswana, where wise lady Precious Ramotswe takes her inheritance and opens the titular agency. Why not? She's clever and discreet. Before long she is helping wives keep track of wayward husbands, bosses investigate employees with suspicious injuries, and (most important) finding a missing boy who may have been kidnapped by a so-called witch doctor.
This book is very, very laid-back, much like its protagonist. Mma Ramotswe -- and how does one pronounce that, by the way? -- is the physical embodiment of the word "sensible." She married a ad man once, and lost a child soon after, but she didn't let it wreck her life. And now her sensible streak makes her a successful businesswoman and a figure of adoration for several men who would like to marry her. She very gently turns them all down, and why not? She's quite sufficient unto herself.
I didn't learn much about Africa from this book, though it imparts a bit of the sensation of living there -- open space, continuity, the importance of family, the occasionally brutal weather. I can see why so many people have taken to devouring every series of novels put out by AMS...he tells good tales in a straightforward style, creating people and settings that invite a long and comfortable acquaintance.
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.
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.)
I will certainly be picking up the next book in the series; I can’t emphasise enough how enjoyable and easy this was to read.
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.
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.
“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.”
The beauty of these books, is that they are mystery novels peppered by common-sense philosophy, and reflections on human behavior - more action and some philosophy make a nice mix.
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.