Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review - Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: A government official enlists Precious Ramotswe's aid to find out who is trying to poison his brother. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni suffers from an illness and Mma Makutsi has to take over running his garage and handle a difficult case at the same time.

Cases with rancor
And beautiful moral girls
Plus an ill loved one

Full review: The third installment of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, Morality for Beautiful Girls delves into the thorny issue of mental illness, the vagaries of family relationships, and the fact that even people who pride themselves on being intelligent can still harbor quite foolish ideas. The story also casts some doubt on the morality of "traditional Botswanan morality", at least insofar as it is applied by Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi.

The main plot element of this book is neither of the two mysteries that inhabit its pages. Rather, the primary plot involves the relationship between Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and how it is affected by Matekoni's struggle with depression. Despite this story line centering almost entirely upon him, Matekoni almost doesn't appear in it, showing up in only a few scenes, and some of those he is merely the voice on the other end of a telephone conversation. But as he is afflicted with depression, this seems entirely fitting, as this is a disease that effectively erases people from their own lives. And Mma Ramotswe responds to this behavior by Matekoni with affection and understanding, even though it is clearly outside of her experience. She visits a doctor to find out what could be wrong, gets a book to try to understand this new and disconcerting disease in her life, and works to try to get Matekoni treatment even though he resists. The book could be criticized for making the treatment of depression seem too easy, but that seems like an unfair criticism given that the author took the issue on in such a respectful way to begin with.

The illness of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does allow for some substantial character development for Mma Makutsi. Already promoted to assistant detective in Tears of the Giraffe, Makutsi is thrust into the position of assistant manager of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors in conjunction with the move of the detective agency to the garage's offices. Despite her lack of knowledge about automobiles and inability to drive, Mma Makutsi puts the administrative and organizational skills that earned her the oft-mentioned score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College to good use, identifying and paying required bills, arranging to get parts delivered from suppliers, and getting the apprentices at the garage to actually work. And soon it becomes clear that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's frequently noted kindness may be more of a liability than one would think, as it seems to be the root cause of the laziness of his two apprentices and the various other problems that seem to have afflicted the garage such as the lack of parts delivery and the petrol supplier's lackadaisical attitude towards keeping the Tlokweng Road's fuel pumps supplied. Under Mma Makutsi's direction, the garage seems to turn all of these problems around, revealing that while it is clear that Matekoni is a superlative mechanic, he has some serious shortcomings as a businessman.

But alongside the everyday stories of the ordinary lives of the characters there are the mysteries. After all, this is a mystery novel, so one would expect that these story lines would be in the book. The primary mystery is handled by Precious Ramotswe, and involves a highly placed government official who is also connected the leadership of the parallel tribal hierarchy that exists in Botswana. This almost dual government that exists in many African nations has been lurking on the outskirts of previous books, but in Morality for Beautiful Girls it comes to the fore in the form of the "government man" (who is never more specifically identified in the book). He has a much younger brother that he says he loves very much, but who has married a woman he believes is trying to poison her husband. After first protesting that such a serious matter should be reported to the police, Mma Ramotswe agrees to go to the large and prosperous farm where the government man's family lives and investigate to find out if his suspicions about his sister-in-law are true. Once there, Mma Ramostwe uncovers the truth using her usual method of paying close attention to the people around her, and treating the staff and servants with respect and getting them to divulge the things they have seen to her. And as usual, the truth isn't quite what anyone thought it would be.

While Mma Ramotswe is away solving her case, Mma Makutsi is required to deal with a case of her own involving the selection of a winner for the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. After being approached by the organizer of the contest, Mma Makutsi undertakes to make a moral evaluation of the four finalists to ensure that none of them have skeletons in their closet or propensities to behavior that would embarrass the contest should they win, with an implication that Mma Makutsi should pick the "correct" winner and the organizer will make sure she emerges victorious. Though Mma Makutsi seems to stumble to the "correct" answer, her handling of the case reveals that being practical and hard working is no defense against prejudice and pseudoscience, and "Botswanan morality" may not be as benign as the reader had been told in the previous two books. After settling on the possibility the phrenology would help her determine which contestants are "good" girls, Mma Makutsi is foiled by the fact that she can't see the exact shape of their heads due to their hair and has to fall back on her alternative of having them fill out a questionnaire using the ruse of being a newspaper reporter. Though the case reveals Mma Makutsi's ingrained prejudice against the kinds of women she decries as "bad" girls, and her investigation is almost farcical at times, she has the good fortune to find a candidate who we are meant to see as clearly being deserving of victory in the contest, and she is able to make a recommendation to her client.

The core theme of Morality for Beautiful Girls is the intersection of Botswanan culture and morality with the modern world, and how that intersection can find them serving complimentary roles, or find them coming into conflict. Despite the repeated praises bestowed by Mma Ramotswe on traditional Botswanan morality (which seems to encompass Botswanan culture as well), when Mma Makutsi finds herself investigating on her own, the somewhat darker and off-handedly judgmental side of Botswanan morality is revealed. The book also contains an interesting subplot involving a feral child found in the wilderness and transported to Mma Potokwane's orphan farm, but this seems to lead nowhere, left as a mystery to be solved in the future, if ever. The novel shines the most when it brings the African landscape into the story as an often foreboding but sometimes loving character, setting the doings of the book's human characters against its starkly beautiful vista. In the end, this novel, like the others in the series, is a gentle stroll through the ordinary lives of ordinary Africans trying to make their way in a dry and often uncompromising land.

Previous book in the series: Tears of the Giraffe
Subsequent book in the series: The Kalahari Typing School for Men

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