Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the eleventh stop on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme “tour,” and that means the letter “K.” Many thanks, as always, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for organizing our tour and for letting us share such interesting sights as we travel : ). My choice for this letter is Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men. Published in 2002, it’s the fourth in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, featuring Mma. Precious Ramotswe.

As the novel begins, Mma. Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma. Grace Makutsi, have settled into their new quarters. They’re now sharing the building used by Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, which is owned by Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma. Ramotswe’s fiancé. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has returned to work following a bout with depression, and both the detective business and the automobile repair business are doing reasonably well. In fact, Mma. Ramotswe is pleased that life seems to be returning to normal.

Her sense of peace is soon disturbed by the opening of a rival detective agency, Satisfaction Guaranteed, run by Rra. Cephas Buthelezi. When the ladies of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency go to visit their competition, they’re treated with condescension, and neither thinks much of their competitor. Not only is he disrespectful, but also, he seems shallow, and Mma. Ramotswe isn’t all sure that he has the credentials and experience that he says he has. Her hope is that clients will recognize a quality agency, and that her business won’t suffer, but more than that, she’s concerned for her rival’s clients. She’s worried that they won’t get their problems solved.

Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t have a lot of time to be unduly stressed by her new competition, as she has other things on her mind. For one thing, her foster daughter Motholeli is having trouble with other girls at school, and her foster son, Puso, has been behaving badly, and won’t listen to her. For another, she has two new cases to solve. One of them is brought to her by Mr. Molofelo, who wants Mma. Ramotswe to find his former landlady and his former girlfriend. Long ago, he stole a radio from his landlady, and he jilted his girlfriend at a very critical time in her life. He’s now very sorry for both decisions, and wants to make amends. The other case is brought by a very disgruntled client of Mma. Ramotswe’s rival, Rra. Buthelezi. Mma. Selelipeng believes that her husband has another woman in his life, and wants Mma. Ramotswe to find out the truth. Mma. Ramotswe accepts both cases, and begins to do the patient searching, questioning and asking around that’s characteristic of her approach to detection.

While Mma. Ramotswe’s busy with her family and her cases, her assistant, Mma. Makutsi, has her own concerns. She’s taking care of a sick brother, and with that expense, plus the money she sends to her family back in her own home village, she’s not finding it easy to make ends meet. At first, she decides to open a driving school. While Mr. J.L.B Matekoni was away, she proved herself to be quite capable with cars, and she’s got good business sense. When she’s dissuaded from this idea, she has another, even better one. As the highest-scoring graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, Mma. Makutsi knows that she’s a first-class typist. She also sees that keyboarding is an increasingly important skill. Women can learn that skill in typing classes, but it’s harder for men to do so. So Mma. Makutsi opens the Kalahari Typing School For Men. She offers discreet evening typing classes for men in the basement of a local church, and persuades her alma mater to donate ten used typewriters.

The school is an immediate success and soon has more enrollees than there are spaces for students. One of the first enrollees is Mr. Bernard Selelipeng, the best student in the class. Before long, he falls in love with Mma. Makutsi and the two are soon dating. This is a real worry for Mma. Ramotswe when she finds out whom Mma. Makutsi is dating. Should she tell her assistant and friend that her new boyfriend is married? Even if she doesn’t, what will happen to Mma. Makutsi when Mma. Ramotswe confronts Mr. Solelipeng with what she’s found out about him? The last thing Mma. Ramotswe wants is for Mma. Makutsi to be hurt.

The resolution of the cases and conflicts in the novel are actually very satisfying. Mma. Ramotswe is able to help her foster daughter deal with the unkind girls at her school, and she gets some good advice about her foster son from Mma. Potokwani, at whose orphanage both children lived. She’s able to find the women in Mr. Molofelo’s past, so that he can make amends. And, in a very neat twist, the problem of Mma. Makutsi’s relationship with Mr. Selelipeng is resolved unexpectedly. There’s even an interesting solution to the problem of the Satisfaction Guaranteed detective agency.

The Kalahari Typing School For Men features especially strong characterization. We care about Mma. Ramotswe’s clients, and it’s easy to get caught up in their lives. Even the minor characters in these particular cases are appealing and interesting. Just as absorbing are the developments in the lives of Mma. Ramotswe, Mma. Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and the other “regular” characters in the seriesl. They are sympathetic, interesting, and sometimes very funny characters, and it’s easy to believe that they could be real. Especially fascinating is the development in the character of Grace Makutsi, who shows herself to be increasingly intelligent, capable and confident.

The novel also evokes Botswana in a compelling way. Woven throughout the story is the culture and history of Botswana, the daily lives of the people who live there, and the country itself. Even the dialogue reflects the cultural context of the novel.

The pace of the story isn’t action-packed, but there’s plenty to keep the reader interested. There are a few interesting twists to the plot, and we can appreciate Mma. Ramotswe’s cleverness as she works to solve her cases. McCall Smith writes with wit and gentle humor and this, too, keeps the reader engaged.

I recommend The Kalahari Typing School For Men highly for those who like quieter mysteries with an emphasis on characters. That said, though, I strongly advise that if you haven’t read this series, you begin with the first novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and read the books in order. Otherwise, it’s harder to make sense of some of the references in this novel. Also, reading the novels in order allows the reader to really appreciate the way the characters evolve over time, especially the character of Grace Makutsi.

I admit to a very strong bias, so you’ll want to keep that in mind as you consider this story. I, personally, have found the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series to be a delightful, evocative, well-written and engaging set of novels. Taking the time to read the novels in order was, for me, no effort at all.

14 comments:

  1. I haven't read this one yet Margot as I only discovered the series recently and am reading them in order - I've read the first two and will read the others, including this one, in time but I'm spacing them out quite deliberately. I have enjoyed the two that I've read very much

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  2. Bernadette - I'm so glad you're enjoying the series. As I said, I'm quite biased, but I do think it's a terrific set of novels. I'm even happier that you're reading the books in order; that's the best way to get the full flavor of the stories.

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  3. I have enjoyed McCall Smith's books set in Scotland - my favorite is the Isabel Dalhousie "mysteries" - but I've had the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in my TBR for quite a few years now and I've just never been able to really get into it. I decided to get it in audio a few months ago but that didn't work out, either. But every time I read a review of the series, I think, I really need to just sit down with that first book and give it a another try.

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  4. Belle - I know what you mean. I've run into authors and books, too, that were highly recommended but that, for whatever reason, didn't draw me in. As big a fan of McCall Smith's work (and this series) as I am (and I am!), I do see that this particular series might not be for everyone. If you do decide to try it again, I'm glad you're planning to start with the first book; that is the best way to get to know the characters. I'll be interested to hear if you like the series better if you try it again.

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  5. I love these books, Margot. I've read the first four, I think. I love the author's voice, his simple style of writing, and of course, Precious. And to think he is a law professor or something similar.

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  6. Bobbi - That's one of the things I like best about the series - the voice and writing style. The novels also have interesting plots, too, and the mysteries keep one reading (or at least, keep me reading). Precious Ramotswe is a fascinating sleuth, too; she's got such down-to-earth wisdom, and a sense of humor, too. And you're absolutely right; it is surprising, when one reads these books, to remember that Smith is a Professor Emeritus of medical law. What an interesting man...

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  7. I very much enjoyed the KALAHARI TYPING SCHOOL, with its introduction of the Mma Makutsi's future husband, and the gentle scenarios. Thanks for this contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet Margot.

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  8. Kerrie - I agree; it's those gentle scnarios that make this series such an enjoyable one. That, plus the ongoing development of the characters, really draw the reader in to the series.

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  9. I'm sorry to say I haven't read any of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series books. But your post makes me want to read them. They'll have to go on my BTR list. Thanks Margot for another interesting post.

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  10. Mason - As I mentioned in my post, I have a very strong bias; I really very much enjoyed the series. That said, though, I really think you'll be glad you gave the books a try. They're thoughtful, clever, engaging and witty. Of course, as I "said" to Belle, I realize that even the best book/series isn't for everyone, but I really do think you'll like this one.

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  11. Thank you for your long review which bought back to me happy memories of reading this book, which I enjoyed very much. I liked it for all the reasons you so aptly state, Margot. I did particularly like, and laugh at, the image of those typing men, and how seriously they undertake their task. I agree with you, though, that it is best to read these charming but sad books in order. (Charming characters, sad situations and economics of the country, despite the books' essential optimism).

    I stopped reading this series after the first six or so, but I do have some more waiting to be read, so I must try to get around to it. Lovely review!

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  12. Maxine - Thanks for your kind remarks : ). I agree with you that there are several quite funny images in this book; those serious, very studious men busily at work is one of them. So are the scenes of the apprentice mechanics at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Smith is quite deft at weaving that gentle humor throuhout the series. You make a well-taken point, too, that we also get a sense of sadness at the condition in which so many people in Botswana live; what makes this series special, though (at least to me) is that, despite this poverty, the characters have a great deal of pride and dignity and, as you say, optimism. That's not easy for an author to achieve, but Smith does it.

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  13. I like to discover new books and new authors via this meme. Another one add to my reading list!

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: K post!

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  14. Gautami - I agree completely! It's so nice to "meet" new authors and books, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by : ).

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