Monday, August 30, 2010

In The Spotlight: Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Hello, All,

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


  1. I haven't read all of this series, but I've loved the ones I have. The characters (not least Mma. Ramotswe), the portrayal of the culture, the humor--what's not to like?

  2. John - What, indeed? What I like about this series (among many other things) is that one can see the growth of the characters over time. Even in the space of one novel, the characters develop; that adds to the novels. I also think the writing style is exactly suited to the setting and the culture.

  3. The nonlinear aspect is key to making the series feel "authentic" (I know that's a loaded word) and different from other series I've read. I noticed when I read this first book that part of Mma Ramotswe's appeal is that she does take time to stop and smell the roses, and the plot mirrors that approach.

  4. Karen - On, you've really put your finger on such an important aspect of this series. It is nonlinear, although that doesn't detract from the reader's being able to follow the action. And I agree; Mma. Ramotswe takes her time with life and enjoys it; that comes through in this book (and the others), and I think it adds to her appeal as a character. It fits with the rest of the book, too.

  5. I've only read one McCall Smith book - this one, and loved it. It is so refreshing and different from any other novels I've read. I love the sense of place, and culture, and the almost languid manor of speech and doing things that suggests a very different pace of life to our own.

    Mma. Ramotswe is such a divine character, wise, funny, strong, and of course, there's the addiction to Red Bush tea. She is in all ways, precious.

    I keep wanting to read more of his novels, but the TBR mountain seems to grow bigger, and bigger...

  6. Vanda - You just mentioned exactly my reasons for falling in love with this series. I, too, really found it to be unique. I truly never had read anything like it before. And yes, McCall Smith places us in Botswana in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, doesn't he?

    Mma. Ramotswe is a terrific character, too. And, in my opinion, both she and Grace Makutsi grow and develop as the series goes on. I do hope you get to read more of the books in the series, but I know exactly what you mean about Mount TBR. Mine is embarrassing - just simply egregiously embarrassing.

  7. I've never read any in this series so I was surprised to hear the things you said about it. Did you know that I never even knew it was set in Botswana? I thought it was set in NYC. I need to get out more, I guess.

    I think if I was going to read this book, I would buy the audio book. Especially if it was read by someone from Botswana. I would love to hear how the names are pronounced.

    I'm glad she gives us thoughts on life in Botswana because we, in the West, don't really know what life is like over there and it's an eye-opener for a lot of people.

    Great spotlight.


  8. Clarissa - Sometimes I'm dismayed by how little I know about series that have been around, and that I should know much better than I do. So I know exactly what you mean about learning new things about this particular book.

    If you are interested in the audio version, Lisette Lecat has narrated several books in this series, including this one. She's South African, so it's not Botswana, but that might interest you. The book itself really has a distinct sense of place, so I really do hope you get the chance to read/hear it.

  9. I don't even look at this as a mystery series- to me, it is more of an account of life in Botswana, with a couple of puzzles thrown in to hold the story together.
    My favorite McCall Smith is the 44, Scotland Street series.

  10. Rayna - Isn't it interesting how different people see the same book or series? That goes back to what, to me, is a fascinating question: what is the definition of a mystery series? Different people really do have different answers to that question.

    I think it speaks to McCall Smith's talent that he's had such success with several different series. Not many people can do that.

  11. Excellent review Margot. It makes me want to read the book.

  12. I'm so glad you wrote about this series. I really love the Mma Ramotswe-books. I've read most of them, and I think the TV series are really good as well!

    Also, thank you so much for your kind words at Clarissa Draper's post! It made my day;)

  13. Jose Ignacio - Thank you : ). I think you will enjoy it. It is not a "typical" mystery series, and that, I think is part of its appeal.

    Alexandra - I'm happy to hear you like the series, too. I like the books very much, and I really enjoy Mma. Ramotswe's character.

    And it was my pleasure to read your short story. I enjoyed it : ). I do look forward to reading your new one when it comes out.

  14. I haven't read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I wasn't really sure what to expect from the book. After reading your review and thoughts on it, it sounds interesting and intriguing. I like the bits of humor included. I'm adding this to my 'want to read' list. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  15. I've read all the books (I think) and love the characters, gentle humour, and the very everyday problems that constitute the mysteries. They prove thatyou can create interesting crime fiction without blood and gore don't they?
    I've got 3 reviews on my blog:

  16. I will look it up. Thanks, Margot.


  17. Mason - I really think you will like it. It isn't your basic, ordinary everyday kind of crime fiction, although there is plenty in the book (and the series) to keep the reader turning pages.

    Kerrie - Oh, that's one of the things I like best about those mysteries. They do, indeed, prove that a good mystery doesn't require gore and "splatter." I really feel those characters have become friends, and I always like it when a new adventure is out : ). Folks, do visit Kerrie's blog. There are lots of excellent reviews, along with other fun crime-fiction related things.

    Clarissa - I don't think you'll be sorry you did.

  18. I loved the first book in this series but had no inclination to read another. Perhaps I was wrong but it seemed like it would be more of the same.

  19. Patti - Some series are certainly like that. I know I've started more than one series, only to find that Book 3 was the same as Book 1, more or less. Each person's different, of course, but in my experience, one thing that distinguishes the books in this series is the growth in the characters over time. There are also new characters introduced and new stories.

  20. Patti - Oh, I'm sure you've got plenty on your plate... still, in my personal opinion, this is a great series.

  21. I thought I had left a comment, but I guess not. I have an award for you on my blog.

    And no matter who or what he writes about, McCall Smith's characters are living breathing folk, and that's what makes him write books that are such a delight to read.

  22. Rayna - Thank you for the award : ). I'll head right over. And you did leave a very interesting comment, mentioning McCall Smith''s 44 Scotland Street series.

    You are right, too. McCall Smith's characters - their depth, their authenticity and their interesting qualities - really do make his stories terrific.