The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

by Alexander McCall Smith

Paperback, 2003

Call number




Anchor (2003), 235 pages


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.

Media reviews

Publishers Weekly
Mma Ramotswe's love of Africa, her wisdom and humor, shine through these pages as she shines her own light on the problems that vex her clients. Images of this large woman driving her tiny white van or sharing a cup of bush tea with a friend or client while working a case linger pleasantly. General audiences will welcome this little gem of a book just as much if not more than mystery readers.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Goodwillbooks
The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency tells the story of Mma Precious Ramotswe, a confident, self-sufficient woman in Botswana. We learn of Mma Ramotswe's family, childhood, and first unhappy marriage, and of her determination to start a detective agency. Several comments/reviews I've read suggest that these "mysteries" are rather simple and more like short stories; accordingly, the book is more about a woman, who happens to be a detective. I'd take it a step further and say that this is actually a story about Africa, and the "new" Africa arising from the traditional Africa. In fact, like all good books, it layers different themes on top of each other, and the result is a picture - a portrayal - of life. The story weaves her first cases, some simple, some complex, into a picture of Africa today, with its beauty and its problems. Her last case ends, "she was crying; for her own child too - remembering the minute hand that had grasped her own, so briefly, while it tried to hold on to a strange world that was slipping away so quickly. There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can't do that, she thought. You just can't." It's a view we don't see often, and one to which we can't wait to return - if only to see what happens after the book's particularly sweet final pages.… (more)
LibraryThing member dougwood57
If you find yourself needing a little uplifting relaxation and a fun read, pick up a copy of Alexander McCall Smith's The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the first book in the overwhelmingly popular series. A perfect break from an overdose of too many noir crime novels!

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.
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LibraryThing member bibliobbe
So many books contain bad things happening to basically good people, so that even by the end when the baddie gets their comeuppance, you feel completely strung out. Well, take heart, brothers and sisters, this is the book for you. This is such a light-hearted tale of one woman’s unlikely career move in Botswana of all places, that you’ll most probably find yourself wondering how much it’d cost to move there. While the location is really a minor player in this book, it made me realise there aren’t too many books set in the Dark Continent, and certainly not many that make you feel good about life there. Sure, Botswana seems to have its problems (our lady detective does get work, after all), but it’s such fun to solve the thorny problems of her clients. It’s a small book, too, so you can knock it off in a short space of time.… (more)
LibraryThing member she_climber
Book about an African woman that sets up the only dectective agency in her town from money she got from selling off the cattle she inherited from her father. Felt like a series of short stories, in one slightly longer story. It was an okay reading but nothing terribly exciting.
LibraryThing member kaionvin
Just about everyone has read this, so I won't add anything new. I just want to say that it would be so easy for Alexander McCall Smith to sound like he's condescending to the story, given the unassuming* format and the atypical setting, and he doesn't. In fact, he spends the whole novel wandering on the precipices and simply not falling into the obvious gaping pitfalls. Besides using the setting organically and without exotifying it, Smith's characters are charming without being cloying, their conflicts mundane without being boring, and the crimes dark without being exploitative.

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.
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LibraryThing member stelled
Alexander McCall Smith captured my attention when he titled his story "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." He captured my heart in the first chapter that introduced me to Precious Ramotswe,a Botswana citizen. Mma Ramotswe has just buried her father at the start of the book and the money legacy he left her has given her the means to start a new career in the Capital city of Gabarone. Armed with the insturctive book,Clovis Anderson's "Principles of Private Detection", Mma Romatswe opens her doors to the troubled people of Botswana.

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.
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LibraryThing member xicanti
The first book in Alexander McCall Smith's popular series is a quick, lovely read. He introduces the reader to Mma Precious Ramotswe, the only female private detective in Botswana, and follows her as she solves a variety of cases. Though the book is marketed as a novel, it’s set up more like a series of short stories involving Mma Ramotswe. There’s one mystery that runs through the whole book, and there are occasional references to the other cases, but for the most part the incidents are self-contained.

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.
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LibraryThing member euang
Brilliant! A happy, funny colourful book for men and women!: I had not read any Alexander McCall Smith books before this one but we have an informal book group and this was my choice. We all loved the book as it was such a great read. Precious Ramotswe is described so vividly that it is easy to visualise her with her plaited hair and rather "stout" physique sitting drinking her red bush tea and contemplating her next case! All the characters introduced to us in this book, the first in the series of No.One Ladies Detective Agency, can be imagined vividly as the author describes them so fully. Give this one a go and I can bet that you will want to read the remaining books in the series just to see what Precious does next!… (more)
LibraryThing member eleanor_eader
Simply, delightfully and evocatively written; with her natural pragmatism, traditional wisdom and abiding love of her country, Precious Ramotswe makes an interesting addition to the ranks of fictional female crime fighters. The stories unfold so gently that it is pure relief after the relentless shlock trend of recent crime writers. That’s not to say that Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t tackle real issues, or that the stories don’t have pace, but McCall Smith’s tone is that of a man unfolding a fable, building a local legend. This is a style of storytelling that fits the African setting so well that the reader could be sitting in a chair across from the sign that reads ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ and listening to the owner recount her own cases.

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.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
This first entry in yet another series of mystery novels is redeemed by two things: a charming setting on the edge of the Kalahari in the culturally rich country of Botswana, and an equally charming detective in the person of Precious Ramotswe.

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.
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LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
It is sure hard not to like the No. 1 Lady Detective, Mme Ramotswe, but that said, this one left me feeling pretty flat. I love anything about Africa I can get my hands on, so found the locality of Botswana (and it also touches on South Africa a bit) interesting and certainly fodder for the interesting things people do and say ... and some of the hard-held, yet very "not modern" customs. So I liked the people, place an overall concept. But the "detective stories" were too simple to be plausibe, often too silly to be believed and sometimes rather boring. Despite its short length, I had a hard time finishing this one. I think the premise has enormous potential though and perhaps the subsequent books rise up to my high hopes.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
This book definitely gets credit from me for having an African woman overcoming adversity and sexism to open a detective agency in Botswana, and for its description of that county and its culture – what a great protagonist, and besides that, I learned some things. Alexander McCall Smith has such an interesting background – born in Zimbabwe and having taught law at the University of Botswana, professor of law at Edinburgh University, and author of a wide variety of books. His erudition is always evident, but I like how he keeps it low-key, with a writing style that has a lightness and humanity about it. This particular story tended to meander a bit with lots of smaller stories in the various cases the detective takes on after opening her agency, which was nice in one sense, but I kind of wish it had been a little more weighty and focused on a single story. Still, a good read, and excellent if this genre suits you.

On night:
“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.”
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LibraryThing member catalogthis
Really enjoyed this. The first chapter was a classic Agatha Christie-style mystery, but since then the author has turned back to clock to introduce us to Mma Ramotswe's father and childhood in Botswana. An unconventional start to a typical detective story, but then again, Mma Ramotswe is an unconventional detective.The larger mystery arc is a bit dark, but provides a nice contrast to the more frivolous cases. And McCall Smith does a wonderful job of providing glimpses of everyday life in Botswana.Great experience as an audiobook; Lisette Lecat is a fantastic narrator. I'll read the next book in the series the "old fashioned" way, though, just to compare. I hope the humor and poignancy come across on the page as well as they do in Lecat's narration.… (more)
LibraryThing member pdxwoman
No. 1 number one was difficult to get into. It was enjoyable, but tediously slow. I kept reminding myself that the writing style was supposed to reflect the difference in culture so I should try to enjoy it at least at the level of the international experience. I bought it at the thrift shop along with No. 1 number two, so I'll give the second book a try.

3-stars: Read at least once and recommend selectively (to people who appreciate intercultural reads)
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LibraryThing member page.fault
It's probably just my own perspective and prejudices, but this book rubs me the wrong way. An elderly white man trying to write from the perspective of an African woman....despite his well-meaning attempts and good intentions, I find his characterization of her and his use of repetitive, simplistic dialogue disconcertingly patronizing. Otherwise, the story is cute and the general concept is fun.… (more)
LibraryThing member reading_fox
Cheerful and charming, slightly disjointed but with a wonderful spirit that you really hope does reflect the true feeling of Africa. A series of short chapters detail incidents in the life and history of Precious Ramotswe as she sets up the only - and finest - No. 1 Ladies detective Agency in Botswana.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member goose114
Alexander McCall Smith has created truly rich characters within a picturesque environment in Botswana, Africa. The cases taken on by The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are fun and interesting while there is an overarching story line that connects the main characters. This is a wonderful quick read that will leave any reader eager to read another.… (more)
LibraryThing member trinityofone
I resisted reading any books by Alexander McCall Smith for a long time, based on the rather snotty and shallow reason that a lot of people bought them from the Barnes & Noble where I worked, and I have a tendency not to read books that lots of other people are buying (unless the protagonist's name rhymes with "Barry Trotter"—or, well, I feel like it). ANYWAY, I finally came across a copy of the first book in this series, available for the low low price of 50 cents! And I knew Doppelganger likes them. And I like Doppelganger. So.

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.
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LibraryThing member michaelmurphy
McCall Smith creates a refreshing fictional world: a Detective Agency in an African locale. Written in simple style, with a dignified air about the whole, the declaration in the Agency sign says it all : SATISFACTION GUARANTEED FOR ALL PARTIES.

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 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.
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LibraryThing member morgan32
I'm completely in love with the audiobooks of this series. The prose style is very simple and the POV tends to chop and change which can be irritating to read, but Adjoa Andoh bring the prose and the characters to full, colourful life. I honestly believe these novels are meant to be heard, not read.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member bsquaredinoz
Upon the death of her beloved father Precious Ramotswe uses her inheritance to establish the first private detective agency run by a woman in Botswana (and possibly all of Africa). With the help of a secretary, a tiny white van and a trusty copy of The Principles of Private Investigation by Clovis Anderson she sets about solving a series of cases involving missing husbands, wayward daughters and fraudulent employees. Along the way Mma Ramotswe deals out pearls of wisdom, loads of gentle humour and a palpable love of Africa and its people.

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.
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LibraryThing member anterastilis
Precious Ramotswe's father's dying wish was that his beloved daughter open a business to support herself. And she did - she opened the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, as the first and only female Private Investigator in all of Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is clever and engaging - the sort of person you'd go to for help with a problem. Her mystery-solving skills draw the attention of everyone from the people in the market to businessmen, government officials, to witch doctors. Taking careful notes from her favorite mystery writers, she travels around Botswana in her little white van in search of evidence and the truth. Sometimes her investigating gets her into trouble, but her indomitable sense of self and duty to her friends keep her from giving up. Light and enchating, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a breath of fresh air in the sometimes dark and intense world of detective novels.… (more)
LibraryThing member subbobmail
I have browsed many books by Alexander McCall Smith -- he appears to publish a new novel every fifteen minutes -- but only decided to finally read The Number One Ladies Detective Agency when I heard that the movie will soon be released. NEVER see the movie before reading the book. (Unless the books are in need of serious editing, of course. This is the Lord of the Rings exception.)

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.
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LibraryThing member DWWilkin
I would rave about this book. Not for the mysteries, for Precious Ramotswe always seems to have them well in hand, even when McCall Smith tries to convince us she is worried about them.

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.)
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Not your average “mystery” book, which is probably why I liked it. The cases are solved almost too easily and lend a simple, back county air to the story. Where this book succeeds is in the description of life in Gaborone, the day-to-day existence of an African city in between traditional culture and modern ideas and emerging from a colonial past. The star Precious Ramotswe is a fully realized character both cunning and charming, yet insecure and harboring a tragic past. I was surprised that the author is actually a white man and not a black woman (I misread the name as Alexandra), which left me wondering if this is an authentic voice of Africa. It sure seems that McCall Smith knows what he’s talking about.

“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).
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