The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series Alexander McCall Smith
Some of my friends seem abashed to admit that they read a “soft” author like Alexander McCall Smith. His novels run around 225 pages, with simple plots, mostly lovable characters, and generally happy endings. I can consume one in an evening, and I relish every minute of it.
McCall Smith writes most of his books in series, so you get to know the characters and want to find out the next events in their lives. You can, however, select any book from a series as your first foray, and McCall Smith will provide you enough background to get oriented. I’ve reviewed two of his series previously on this blog: the Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series. But the grandmother of them all is McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is set in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught law in the 1980s and for which he plainly has a great affection. After I’d read a couple of the Botswana novels, I educated myself about this nation in southern Africa (bordered by South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), to get some context. Since Botswana is at 24 degrees south of the equator, and since the Kalahari Desert makes up about 70% of its territory, you’ll find ample references in the novels to hot, dry, dusty, sunny weather conditions. Thanks to cattle farms and the mining of gemstones and precious metals, the economy of Botswana is especially strong, and residents enjoy a good standard of living, especially with respect to education and health care. Still, the AIDS epidemic has hit the country hard, so a recurring feature of McCall Smith’s books is an orphanage that shelters children whose parents have died from AIDS. The Tswana African people are the predominant ethnic group, and Christianity is the predominant religion. English is the official language of Botswana, but you’ll find honorifics in the Setswana language: “Mma” for women and “Rra” for men. You’ll also find the English adjective “late,” referring to the deceased, used not only as a modifier (“her late father”) but also as a predicate adjective (“her father was late”).
Zooming in to the series, you’ll meet Precious Ramotswe, the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the capital, Gabarone, a bustling city with a mix of Western amenities and traditional African dwellings and family affiliations. Precious, who is 34 at the start of the series, was raised primarily by her beloved Daddy, the cattle farmer Obed, in a rural village. Although she had a happy childhood, she married the musician Note Mokote, who physically abused her and then abandoned her, leaving her unable to bear children. When her father dies, Precious is able to sell some of his herd to launch her business, the first detective agency in Botswana. She hires the capable Grace Makutsi as her secretary and sets up an office near the auto repair shop of JLB Matekoni, an excellent mechanic. The detective agency usually takes on cases that involve domestic or business problems—cheating spouses, thieving employees, missing persons, petty vandalism.
Although Mma Ramotswe does thorough surveillance and research, she also applies levelheaded thinking to solve the cases, and she encourages her clients to utilize compromise or forgiveness as part of the solutions. Readers have access to her thoughts as she ponders motives and ethical challenges. McCall Smith’s specialty in his years as a law professor was ethics, and through Mma Ramotswe’s cases he presents many moral quandaries. Is a legal approach or personal reconciliation preferable? What are appropriate punishments for various degrees of crime? How have societal views of women affected attitudes toward domestic violence? At a much lesser level, what should the response be to a coworker who is good hearted and efficient but irritating in manner? These are the kinds of tough questions that underlie the easygoing banter of McCall Smith’s dialogues. He paints scenes of kindness, but not without pushback on ethical issues. Oh, and there’s romance in some of the novels, too.
McCall Smith churns out writing at a prodigious rate. Remember that he’s publishing books in several other series at the same time as he’s writing more for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In addition to the two series I’ve mentioned above, he has books in the Corduroy Mansions series and in the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. He’s also written versions of African folk tales for children, and he’s produced half a dozen freestanding novels for adults. I’d recommend steering away from the freestanding novels, which vary in quality.
But the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is highly recommended. I offer the list to date below. At your library or book store, be sure to look under “M” for “McCall Smith,” since that’s his full, unhyphenated surname.
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
- Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
- Mortality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
- The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
- The Full Cupboard of Life (2003)
- In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
- Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
- The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
- The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
- Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
- The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
- The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
- The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
- The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
- The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Café (2014)
- The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
- Precious and Grace (2016)
- The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)
Video side note: In 2008-2009, BBC/HBO broadcast seven episodes of a television series loosely based on the early books about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I found that these episodes, filmed in Botswana, admirably captured the spirit of the books.