This charming and cheerful mystery series take place in Gaberone, the capital of Botswana. Scottish author McCall Smith (who incidentally must be one of the most productive authors out there; check out his bibliography on Wikipedia) was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and is in addition to being a writer a leading scientist on medical ethics. He has written eleven books in the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective …’ series, which circle around main character Mma. Ramotswe.
Precious Ramotswe is a Motwsana woman somewhere in her forties, kind, good-humoured and of ‘traditional build’. She uses the inheritance from her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe, and starts the first ladies’ detective agency in Botswana; hence she’s number one. Mma. Ramotswe experiences some start-up challenges when it comes to choosing methods and means. For instance she’s very surprised when an early customer, who wants to find out if her husband is cheating, is outraged when Mma. Ramotswe has proved beyond any doubt that he is, by sleeping with him herself. She remains an unconventional detective in many ways, but with strong intuition.
Early in the business Mma. Ramotswe hires a kind, proud and somewhat awkward secretary, Mma. Makutsi. Mma. Makutsi got 97% on her final exams from Botswana Secretarial College, a fact that she brings up at any chance. She has a very special relationship with her shoes, which is the one luxury she allows herself, and frequently argues with them. Mma. Makutsi advances to being an associate detective throughout the series. Another central character is Mma. Ramotswe’s friend, fiance and eventual husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni. He’s a good-hearted mechanic with his own garage and two no-good apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell. Charlie and Mma. Makutsi have a continuous show-down:
“Charlie did not reply, but whispered to Fanwell: ‘Who would dance with her? Nobody. Only that Phuti Radiphuti, and his feet are like elephants’ feet. Big dancer. Hot steps.’
Fortunately, Mma. Makutsi had gone back into the office and did not hear this remark. Mma. Ramotswe gave Charlie a reproachful look. ‘You should not say things like that, Charlie. It is not kind.’
‘She says things about me’, the apprentice replied.
Mma. Ramotswe sighed. ‘You will learn one day, maybe soon, that what others do is never an excuse. Have you not heard of turning the other cheek?’
Charlie was unrepentant. ‘I have not heard of that.’
Mma. Ramotswe began to explain, but could tell that what she said was falling on deaf ears.
‘I would never do that’, said Charlie. ‘It would be very foolish, Mma. Ramotswe. You show your other cheek and, whack, they hit on that one too.’ “
-Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
Mma. Ramotswe takes on any kind of case; missing persons, infidelity, work-related problems and many others. In a pinch she relies on Clovis Andersen’s The Principles of Private Detection, although she doesn’t always agree with or fully understand his advice. A problem throughout the books is making the agency profitable. It is in part with the help of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage, that Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi can make the business go around.
What I like about the books is their warmth, their humour and optimistic mood. That doesn’t mean they do not touch serious issues. Depression is well treated in the books, as well as Africa’s challenges when it comes to HIV and Aids. Social issues and poverty are also topics in the books, but more as a backdrop than a main topic. McCall Smith is said to have aspired to write about a different Africa than the one you see on news reports: an Africa of warmth and compassion and everyday happiness, of people who are kind and do their best, sometimes under less that fortunate circumstances. And in my opinion he is very, very good at it.
There are a few quirks in the books; a few inconsistencies in the colourful universe McCall Smith has created, and after a while some of the books seem like repetitions of earlier stories. But these are minor objections.
If you haven’t yet made Precious Ramotswe’s acquaintance, do it now.
You won’t regret it.
“Mma. Ramotswe thought about this. Her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, had always had the right approach to life – she was sure of that. And for a moment, as she sat there with her friend, with the late-afternoon sun slanting in through the window, she thought about how she owed her father so much. He had thought her almost everything she knew about to lead a good life, and the lessons she had learned from him were as fresh today as they had ever been. Do not complain about your life. Do not blame others for things that you have brought upon yourself. Be content with who you are and where you are, and do whatever you can to bring others to such contentment, and joy, and understanding that you have managed to find yourself.
She closed her eyes. You can do that in the company of an old friend – you can close your eyes, and think of the land that gave you life and breath, and of all the reasons why you are glad that you are there, with the people you know, with the people you love.’
-The Double Comfort Safari Club
List of titles in the series:
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Blue Shoes and Happiness
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
The Miracle at Speedy Motors
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
The Double Comfort Safari Club