Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review - The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: Mma Ramotswe tries to help a man set right the things he did wrong in the past, but her life is complicated by a rival detective agency. Mma Makutsi sets up her own business and finds love. Or does she?

A forgotten crime,
A desire to make amends
And a bad romance

Full review: The Kalahari Typing School for Men is the fourth installment of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and involves a mystery that isn't really a mystery, a romance that isn't really a romance, and a competitor that isn't really a competitor. The only story in the book that isn't completely inverted is Mma Makutsi's creation of a new side business to earn extra money, but even that, involving her teaching men the secretarial skill of typing, is something of a cultural reversal.

The primary mystery in the book isn't actually a mystery at all: The reader knows who the culprit in the tale is from the beginning, because he is Mma Ramotswe's client and he tells her of the wrongs he committed years before, making this a kind of inverted mystery where the criminal and crime is identified at the beginning, but the victims must be located. After an epiphany, the client decided that he needed to find the people he had injured as a young man and make amends with them, a choice that led him to hire a private detective to do the leg work. Through the book, Mma Ramotswe uses her usual techniques of calling people on the phone, talking to people over cups of tea, and otherwise pursuing the truth to find both the woman whose radio was stolen, and the woman whose heart was broken and ferret out how their lives had gone since her client knew them. In the end, Mma Ramotswe is able to get the information her client wants, but more importantly, she is able to serve as a kind of confessor for him, patiently guiding him to make the real sacrifices in order to meaningfully atone for the crimes he had committed. And that, I think, is one of the most critical point made in the book - in order to truly seek forgiveness, one has to take actual action. This story line is also the first time that the AIDS epidemic is directly referenced in the book, in the form of a child who has been afflicted with the disease.

The story line that gives the book its title revolves around Mma Makutsi's efforts to earn more money. Although she enjoys the titles of assistant detective and assistant manager that come with her dual roles working for the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mma Makutsi is aware that neither business can afford to raise her salary by any substantial amount. But, as she both takes care of her brother and sends a portion of her paychecks home to the rest of her family, she realizes that her finances are stretched to the breaking point. After briefly considering opening a driving school (notwithstanding the fact that she cannot drive), Mma Makutsi settles upon the idea of opening a typing school aimed at training men to type based upon the theory that while men are too proud to stoop so low as to attend an institution like the Botswana Secretarial College, they would benefit from learning to type so as to be better able to use the computer keyboards entering office use. Putting her formidable organizational skills to the task, Mma Makutsi soon acquires the typewriters, space, and students she needs to make her business a success. Soon, she is engaged in teaching men how to type, a situation that seems to make some of her students uncomfortable, although in the end they seem reconciled to it, as her obvious expertise shines through.

And while Mma Makutsi's start-up business seems to get off to an almost improbably successful start, and it also leads to another significant plot point as she engages in a dalliance with a well-dressed student of the school named Bernard Seleliping. In the course of her romance, Mma Makutsi is taken to an expensive bar and a fancy restaurant, but unbeknownst to her her relationship is threatened by her suitor's duplicity. Early in the book Mma Ramotswe discovers that a new detective agency has opened in Gabarone - the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency, run by former police officer Cephas Buthelezi, a man who turns out to be arrogant, overbearingly sexist, and dismissive of both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi. This story line is more or less dropped until substantially later in the book when a disgruntled former client of Mr. Buthelezi's shows up on Mma Ramotswe's door. She believes that her husband has been cheating on her, and is dissatisfied by Buthelezi's finding that her husband has been spending his time in church, a suggestion that she simply does not believe. Before too long, the reader realizes that the church the wayward husband has been going to is the same one Mma Makutsi has been using to give her typing lessons.

This results in yet another moral dilemma for Mma Ramotswe, as she figures out that the romantic suitor she has been hearing about from Mma Makutsi is none other than the wandering husband of her new client. As is typical of the series, the real problem is not unraveling the mystery, which is almost a trivial exercise, but rather trying to figure out how to resolve the situation. Mma Ramotswe likes Mma Makutsi, and doesn't want her to get hurt by the revelation that her paramour is a married man and also feels an obligation to her client who happens to be Mr. Seleliping's wife. As usual, Mma Ramotswe deals with the issue in her direct and fairly forthright manner, and Mma Makutsi unknowingly solves the moral dilemma on her own. But the interesting development in this story line is the transformation of the character of Mma Makutsi, from someone who was mostly just an object of pity renowned for her score of 97% at the Botswana Secretarial College to a fully realized individual who is aware of her own worth both as an employee and as a romantic figure.

Like the previous books in the series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men is a book with a gentle and almost languid sensibility. There is a mystery, but it involves a stolen radio and a broken relationship, not a murder or a bank heist. There is a romance of sorts, but it is a placid one, involving getting drinks at fancy bars and dinner at fancy restaurants before fizzling out from disinterest leavened with a helping of dishonesty. Mma Ramotswe has some trouble with her newly adopted children, but this difficulty fades after a fairly easy prescription is applied. Even the competitor that dominates much of the discussion in the early portion of the book basically blows away like a dead leaf on the wind. The plot-lines all come very close to resolving in ways that are simply too serendipitously convenient, but stop just short of crossing that line. The problems Mma Ramotswe and those around her face are mundane and in some cases almost trivial, but they are solved, not so much by chance, but rather because those facing these problems approach them with common sense, a willingness to engage in hard work, and caring and compassion. The Kalahari Typing School for Men is a quiet book, but it is quiet in the best way.

Previous book in the series: Morality for Beautiful Girls
Subsequent book in the series: The Full Cupboard of Life

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