The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme has moved along to our second stop - "B." Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping everyone safe. Of course, this is only the second stop… ;-). My choice for this stop is Alexander McCall Smith's Blue Shoes and Happiness. Published in 2006, it's the seventh in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.
In this novel, like the other novels in this series, Mma. Precious Ramotswe is kept busy on several fronts; she's running her detective agency, helping people solve problems, and managing her personal life. One day, she discovers that she has competition of a sort when she begins to read a new advice column written by a columnist who calls herself Aunty Emang. Mma. Ramotwse thinks that Aunty Emang's advice is too simplistic to be really useful, but she doesn't worry much about it until several cases turn out to be related to Aunty Emang's column. First, there's the case of Poppy Maope, who's caught her employer stealing but can't prove it. Her employer has threatened to fire her if she tells anyone, so she doesn't want to go to the police; instead, she asks Mma. Ramotswe to help her. When Mma. Ramotswe looks into the case, she finds out that Mma. Tsau, Poppy Maope's employer, is being blackmailed and thinks Poppy is the blackmailer. When Mma. Ramotswe proves that it's someone else, Mma. Tsua agrees to help her find out who's responsible. In the process, Mma. Ramotswe also helps Mma. Tsau with a problem of her own. Then, Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from Boitelo Mampodi, a nurse who works in the office of Dr. Eustace Lubega. She's concerned because she believes her employer is engaged in some sort of illegal activity. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to try to find out what's going on. It turns out that several cases Mma. Ramotswe's working on involve people who are being blackmailed, and Mma. Ramotswe traces the blackmailer and confronts that person.
At the same time, the detective agency's newest employee Mr. Polopetsi wants to help his employer and mentor, and gain some credibility. So he investigates reports of suspicious goings-on at the Mokolodi Game Preserve. The employees at the game preserve wonder if something supernatural is happening, as they've seen and heard some strange things. Mr. Polopetsi tracks down the source of the weird sights and sounds and solves the case.
In the meantime, several things are going on in the personal lives of these characters. Mma. Ramotswe decides that she ought to lose some weight, so she goes on a diet. Her assistant, Mma. Grace Makutsi, has a misunderstanding with her fiancé Phuti Rhadiphuti. And Mma. Ramotswe's husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is looking for the perfect comfortable chair at a price he's willing to pay.
There are several elements in this novel that bring readers of the series back for each new instalment. One of them is the clever way in which Mma. Ramotswe solves her cases. She doesn't always directly confront people, especially not when it's going to serve no purpose. Instead, she comes up with ingenious alternatives. For instance, as she investigates Dr. Lubega, she visits him under the pretext of having her blood pressure taken. She pretends to accept the prescription he offers her for blood pressure medication and then checks with her friend Dr. Howard Moffatt. He confirms that Dr. Lubega has been substituting cheap generic medication for expensive name-brand medication and pocketing the difference. Mma. Ramotswe has promised her client not to reveal her own involvement in the case. So instead of reporting Dr. Lubega herself or confronting him, she and Dr. Moffett work out a way for the doctor to report his colleague.
Another element woven through this novel is the set of "regular" characters. The reader needn't have read the first six books in this series to enjoy this one (although I personally recommend it), but we do see how the characters evolve. For instance, there's Grace Makutsi, Mma. Ramotswe's highly capable assistant, who's evolved from being a secretary to being an assistant detective as well as the manager of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's auto repair shop. In this novel, we follow as Mma. Makutsi sorts out her engagement to Phuti Rhardiphuti and strikes a balance between her desire to be a happily married wife and her modern feminist bent. There's also Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma. Ramotswe's quiet, sensible, capable husband. He's recovered from a recent bout with depression and we see him returned to full health in this novel. Those characters add interest and depth to the series. So does the character of Mma. Ramotswe herself. Not at all a stereotypical detective, she's an old-fashioned, sensible, clever woman who uses her knowledge of Botswana's culture and of human nature to solve her cases.
One of the other elements that we see in this novel is a gentle sense of humour. For instance, there's a very funny domestic scene in which Mma. Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and their adopted children Puso and Motholeli are eating dinner. Mma. Ramotswe, who is a "traditionally-built lady," has just announced that she's going on a diet:
"She [Mma. Ramotswe] was already beginning to feel hungry, and the diet had only been going for a few minutes. Perhaps she should have just a little bit of the stew - there was still some left in the pot in the kitchen. She rose to her feet.
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni smiled. 'Is that you going in the kitchen to help yourself to stew in secret?' he asked.
Mma. Ramotswe sat back down. 'I was not going into the kitchen,' she said hotly. 'I was just adjusting my dress. It's feeling rather loose, you see.'"
The novel takes place against the backdrop of a Botswana setting, and we see the culture, the land and the lifestyle of the people throughout the story. For instance, one morning, Mma. Makutsi finds a cobra in the detective agency office - not something that would happen in just any setting. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two assistants try to frighten the snake away, but to no avail. In fact, they make the situation worse. Fortunately, Neil Whitson from the Mokolodi Game Preserve has come to the office; he's skilled at dealing with cobras, so he's able to use a snake sack to catch the snake and take it away.
There are also memorable descriptions of the land:
"She [Mma. Ramotswe] had made a cup of bush tea and had drunk that thoughtfully, gazing out over the rim of her cup onto the garden to the front of the house. The sausage fruit tree, the moporoto…had taken it upon itself to produce abundant fruit this year, and four heavy sausage-shaped pods had appeared at the end of a branch, bending that limb of the tree under their weight."
"…like most people in Bostwana he [Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni] was, at heart, a farmer, and he took great pleasure in this small patch of vegetables that he coaxed out of the dry soil. One day…they would move out to a village, perhaps to Mochudi, and find land to plough and cattle to tend. Then at last there would be time to sit outside…and watch the life of the village unfold before them."
The characters (especially Mma. Ramotswe), the gentle humour and the real sense of place in these novels have won this series fans all over the world. I admit I'm one of them, so I'm biased. What do you think? Have you read Blue Shoes and Happiness? If you have, what elements do you see in it?