Friday, July 15, 2005

A Miss Marple in Botswana: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith


After her father dies, Precious Ramotswe uses the inheritance from the sale of his cattle to start her own detective agency: THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY and paints a sign in brilliant colors with the message above for everyone in the Kalahari to know. Her reasoning behind becoming a detective is simple and logical:
  • There are no detectives in Gaborone, Botswana.
  • There must be a number of people in Botswana who needed crimes solved, missing items and people traced, something found out.
  • She is ready to do it for them. In fact she is the lady to do it.
So Mma Ramotswe becomes Botswana's first female detective. A client lands at her doorstep on the very first day, there's soon a steady trickle of cases and Mma Ramotswe solves everyone one of them in manner that's unassuming, relying on her native, hard-learned wisdom, her deep understanding of human nature and plain common sense.

The answers that Mma Ramotswe comes up with for each of her cases (or mysteries) are all very simple, sensible, and satisfying. And all her solutions are rigorously logical. The reader is treated to a number of piquant mysteries: a man joins a Christian sect and the vanishes into thin air, a doctor who seems to be two different people—at times highly competent and other times with little knowledge about medicine—depending on the day of the week, a strict Indian father worried that his teenage daughter is sneaking off to see a boy, and one case of a kidnapping, witchcraft, and possible murder of a small boy. Invariably Mma Ramotswe's intelligence, dignity and innate goodness help her penetrate into the heart of every mystery. The cases are a series of linked vignettes that trace the growth of Mma Ramotswe's THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY and establish her as a detective of repute in Botswana.

McCall Smith's tone though gently ironic, is also quietly indulgent towards his wonderful protagonist—the Miss Marple of Botswana. McCall Smith's Botswana has much of the cosiness and charm that we find in Christie's Miss Marple series. The character of Mma Ramotswe, though, is infinitely more charming and likeable compared to Miss. Marple. As a reader you can't help feeling pleased with the acquaintance of this "traditionally built" (as opposed to thin and unattractive) woman who drives a tiny white van and loves to share a cup of bush tea with a friend or client. Mma Ramotswe is also a precious creation because unlike the traditional investigators she is not a detective only full of logic. Rather she goes through the book buoying the spirits of her clients, giving gentle, commonsensical advice, making people happy—she is more a friend than a private detective. She is the sort of friend whom you trust totally and pour out all your troubles knowing that she will set them right. Mma Ramotswe, in fact, seems to be less into apprehending criminals and more into "healing" people.

The book is peopled entirely with believable characters, from Mma Ramotswe's first wastrel husband to her assistant Mma Makutsi. And two other characters: Mma Ramotswe's father and her tongue-tied suitor Mr J. L. B. Matekoni are absolute gems.

The book (unlike other detective mystery books) is not dark and full of evil, but as bright and sunny as the blue African sky. The character of Mma Ramotswe doesn't inspire fear or awe but instills a quiet confidence and hope. Unlike most detective novels it may not be fast-paced but nevertheless it is a lovely read. It is fun and lighthearted, a novel that affirms the beauty of simple living and stresses the inherent goodness that is in everyone.

I am looking forward to reading the other five books in this series. Have been lucky enough to lay my hands on all of them.

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1 comment:

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