Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: Mma Ramotswe is the only lady detective in Botswana. She uses hard work and cunning to solve cases ranging from insurance fraud to missing and possibly murdered children.

Lady detective
From village to Gabarone
Solves all the cases

Full review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the story of Precious Ramotswe and how she came to be the first (and only) lady detective in Botswana. It is also the story of how she solved several cases along the way, but to a certain extent these are almost an afterthought appended to the greater story of exploring who Precious Ramotswe is, what Botswana is like, and how she came to be the person we meet in the book. The story is excellent in so many different ways that it is impossible to list them without sounding overly effusive.

The first thing I will say is that I lived in Africa for nine years, a continent that feels unlike any other place in the world. My experience in Africa was in many ways fairly superficial, as I was a relatively insulated as a result of living on the continent as the dependent of an American diplomat, and it is very difficult to get a feel for a landmass as huge as Africa while only living in a few different countries, but with that said, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency feels authentically African. As I never lived in Botswana, I can't verify that the book feels Botswanan - I have to simply accept that McCall Smith's representation is reasonably accurate - but it does evoke the same feel for me as I remember from my time spent in Tanzania and Zaire. There is no specific element that I can point to in the book that gives this book this authenticity - it is more of an inchoate feeling that can only be described as "rightness".

Early in the book Precious (or as she is referred to in the book Mma Ramotswe) gives an account of the life of her father Obed Ramotswe, a man she says was unable to tell his own story so others must tell it for him. Obed is dead by the time the main events of the book take place, his body finally giving out after a life working in the mines of South Africa, bringing up a daughter as a single father, and raising a respectable herd of cattle. This plain, simple life of a kindly but illiterate farmer would be swallowed up and forgotten by history but for the account given by his daughter. But this sentiment seems to be true for most of the characters of the book. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is filled with shopkeepers, mechanics, rural villagers, secretaries, and all of the other ordinary people who move through life and would normally go almost unnoticed.

And to a certain extent, noticing people who would normally go unnoticed is how Precious Ramotswe makes her small detective agency work. The book doesn't contain murder mysteries or other sweeping and "important" cases - in fact, one suspects that Precious would scoff at the idea that a private detective agency would handle such matters. Those are, she would say, matters for the police to handle. Her clients are people who simply need help with the every day questions that crop up in their lives: A woman who suspects the new car her husband brought home is a stolen vehicle. A women whose husband has gone missing. A business owner who suspects that a former employee is trying to defraud him. And so on. But even though these stories aren't important in the sense that they will change the fortunes of nations, or even the movers and shakers of history, they are important to the people involved in them, a fact that McCall Smith makes painfully clear.

It is this attention to the ordinary that gives this book its magic. While a lesser novelist might be inclined to smirk at the mundane concerns and earnest attitudes of these characters, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency treats them with a respect and honesty that gives them a gentility and dignity. Throughout the books the characters are referred to (and refer to one another) formally, usually with the honorifics "Mma" and "Rra" and are addressed by their last names. Precious Ramotswe is never referred to as Precious once she is an adult, but rather as Mma Ramotswe. Even when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (who is always referred to in exactly that way) proposes marriage to her, he proposes to her using the formal address and honorific. Mma Ramotswe's somewhat precocious secretary is always referred to as Mma Makutsi. The Detective Agency's clients are always treated with a formal respect, and their concerns, no matter how small or petty they seem, are treated seriously by both Mma Ramotswe and by the author.

It is somewhat emblematic of the theme of the book that the long-running underlying mystery within it involves a client who is a simple villager who considers himself unworthy of Mma Ramostwe's attention, but who despairingly sends her a letter after his child goes missing. But even though he is poor and almost powerless, the story insists that he and his request be regarded with respect as befits his basic humanity. On the other hand, the villainous characters in the book are people who believe themselves to be more important than others to the extent that they think nothing of using those around them to suit their own selfish ends. The government official who uses items of witchcraft, even though he knows that children suffer and die so that it can be provided to him. The witch doctor who inflicts the suffering so as to be able to earn a profit. His wife who assists his grisly work. The brutal husband who beats his wife and turns his back on his dying child. They all share the same characteristics of callousness, self-importance, and selfishness that is the face of evil as presented by McCall Smith.

With engaging and likable characters, some light mysteries, and the stories of the lives of ordinary people told in simple, yet beautiful language, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a very good book. When one adds in the majestic and serene depiction of Botswana to the mix, the book climbs to being outstanding. Precious Ramotswe and her compatriots are sure to entrance almost any reader with their charming, almost quaintly honest tales.

Subsequent book in the series: Tears of the Giraffe

Alexander McCall Smith     Book Reviews A-Z     Home


  1. I have been interested in this book series ever since I saw that there was a show for it. I am sad to say I hadn't heard about it before then. I look forward to picking it up after your review. How amazing it must've been to live in Africa. My father visited there several times for work and would bring me back beautiful items.

    1. @My anxious life: As you can probably tell from my review, I liked the book a lot. I think it does a very good job of capturing the atmospheric feel of Africa as a place.