Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There are a number of crime and mystery fiction sub-genres: psychological, noir, cosy and police procedural are just a few examples. Some books, though, don’t fit neatly into a category, and that’s part of their appeal. Instead, they bring something unique to crime fiction. Today’s spotlighted book, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is just that sort of novel.
Mma. Precious Ramotswe has recently lost her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. He left behind a valuable herd of cattle, and Mma. Ramotswe uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open a detective agency in her native Botswana. At first, the only assets the agency has besides the building itself are a tiny white van, an old typewriter, two telephones and two desks. Besides that, Mma. Ramotswe has a copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection, which she consults frequently. Mma. Ramotswe also decides that the agency won’t be taken seriously until she has a secretary. So she hires Mma. Grace Makutsi, a recent top-ranked graduate of the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. Together, the two of them launch the business.
This novel doesn’t focus on only one of Mma. Ramotswe’s cases; we follow several stories at once. For instance, Happy Babetse hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out the truth about a man who’s recently shown up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father. Botswana tradition requires Happy to take care of her father and allow him to live with her, so at first, she welcomes the man. Soon, though, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems with him. Mr. Paliwalar Patel hires the agency to follow his sixteen-year-old daughter Nandira, and find out what boy she is secretly seeing. The agency is also investigating the disappearance of Peter Malatsi, whose wife thinks he may have run off with another woman. There’s also a case of insurance fraud, a stolen car, and the mysterious behavior of a local doctor. Finally, and most difficult for Mma. Ramotswe, is the case of Ernest Pakotati, who writes to Mma. Ramotswe asking her to find his missing eleven-year-old son. In all of these cases, Mma. Ramotswe and Mma. Makutsi find out the truth, even when the answers are not the ones the client wanted.
One important element woven throughout this novel is its very authentic sense of the culture of Botswana. Even the style of the novel gives readers a taste of the culture. It’s not written in the linear, strictly chronological fashion in which many crime fiction novels are written. Rather, it’s reflective and at times, makes use of “flashbacks.” We also see the culture in other ways. Here, for instance, are some of Mma. Ramotswe’s thoughts as she investigates the the man who is pretending to be Happy Babetse’s father:
“As she drove to Happy Babetse’s house…she reflected on how the African tradition of support for relatives could cripple people. She knew of one man, a sergeant of police, who was supporting an uncle, two aunts, and a second cousin. If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that.”
McCall Smith also shares the culture of Botswana in small details, such as houses, food and other aspects of daily life.
The dialogue is also an important element in this novel. It’s reflective of the culture and the place, and MCall Smith also uses the dialogue to give the reader a strong sense of the characters as well. For example, when wealthy Mr. Paliwalar Paet hires Mma. Ramotswe to follow his daughter, we get a sense of his personality and views, and of Mma. Ramotswe’s opinions.
"I don’t like the idea of watching a child…"
“But children must be watched!” expostulated Mr. Patel. “If parents don’t watch their children, then what happens? You answer me that!”
“There comes a time when they must lead their own lives,” said Mma. Ramotswe. “We have to let them go.”
“Nonsense! shouted Mr. Patel “Modern nonsense…”
After Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, she says:
“I must be able to be unobserved.”
“Ah, a very good idea. You detectives are very clever men.”
“Women,” said Mma. Ramotswe.
Another element that runs through The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a gentle sense of humour. For instance, Alice Busang hires the Mma. Ramotswe to find out if her husband Kremlin has been unfaithful. Mma. Ramotswe takes the unusual step of pretending to flirt with Krremlin Busang to prove that he’s a ladies’ man. She tricks Busang into having his picture taken with her and shows the photograph to his wife:
“But you…you went with my husband. You…"
Mma. Ramotswe frowned. “You asked me to trap him, didn’t you?’”
Alice Busang’s eyes narrowed… “’You took my Kremlin! You husband-stealer! Thief!”
Mma. Ramotswe looked at her client with dismay. This would be a case, she thought, where she might have to waive the fee.”
One of the strongest elements in this novel is the set of characters. Mma. Ramotswe herself is a strong woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. She’s also intelligent, shrewd and wise. She’s got traditional values and a strong sense of ethics, too. Yet, her character is multi-dimensional. For instance, she has a sense of ethics, but is not afraid to lie if the result of the lie brings about a greater good. She’s compassionate, too. For example, when she discovers a case of insurance fraud, she confronts the man who committed it with what she knows. He admits that he’s guilty, but explains that he’s committed the fraud because he has to support his parents as well as his sister’s children. Instead of turning the guilty party over to the police, Mma. Ramotswe agrees not to pursue the case, but makes the man promise not to commit any more fraud. We get the sense, too, that he will keep his word.
The other characters, too, are well-developed. Mma. Grace Makutsi is originally hired as the agency’s secretary, but she soon proves herself to be skilled at detection and working with clients, too. So she’s promoted to Assistant Detective. We see her character develop as the novel progresses. We learn about Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. More than just a skilled mechanic, he’s a wise man who’s a good friend to Mma. Ramotswe. He’s a hard worker and, although he sees himself as just a simple mechanic, we learn more about him than that.
The unique setting, the sense of culture and use of language give the reader the unmistakable “feel” of Botswana. The gentle humor and strong characters pull the reader in, and the cases themselves are believable. In this novel, too, we learn quite a bit of Mma. Ramotswe’s backstory. We learn about her father, who worked in the mines in South Africa for many years to support the family. We learn about her disastrous first marriage to jazz musician Note Makoti. We learn about her upbringing, too. So readers who are interested in this series will probably want to start with this novel.
What’s your view? Have you read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
As always, if there's a book that you would like to see in the spotlight, please leave a comment or send me an Email.
Coming Up on In The Spotlight
Monday, 6 September/Tuesday 7 September - The Breaker - Minette Walters
Monday 13 September/Tuesday 14 September - The Daughters of Cain - Colin Dexter
Monday 20 September/Tuesday 21 September - A Taste for Death - P.D. James