The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Recently, I had one of those panic attacks voracious readers get: I was about to run out of reading material with a couple of hours yet to go in my trip. That’s right, I was in danger of getting stuck in an airport and on a plane with nothing to read! Quell horror! Luckily for me airports have bookstores. The question then became what to buy? A newspaper? A magazine? If a book, what book? I am not much a newspaper reader and I couldn’t find a magazine that really caught my eye so I decided on a book. But I didn’t want to pay full price for a book I might not enjoy, or buy one that I already had or might get for free, so I needed to choose wisely.

On a number of occasions I had read with interest people discussing the merits of various world wide bestsellers. One such book and series that often caused bemused wonder on the part of some authors and critics was Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Having read McCall Smith’s contribution to the Myth Series, I thought this would be a good chance to check out the famous series and get a sense of the author in a non-myth based setting. So I picked up the first book in the series to help me fill up the remaining travel time on my journey.

While the book certainly served its purpose, it was easy going light reading that helped pass the time, I don’t think I will be reading the rest of the series anytime soon. And I have to say I share the puzzlement of many over the popularity of the series as a whole. For more click below.

Here is how the back cover sets up the story and the series:

This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

McCall Smith outlines the story through a series of memories and told by both Mma. Ramotswe and her recently deceased father. After her father passed away, Precious used the money that was left to her from the sale of her father’s cattle to set up the first female detective agency in Botswana. She buys a storefront office, hires a secretary, posts a large and colorful sign, and waits for cases to come her way. Luckily for her, she is able to attractive a few clients to get the business off the ground. Mma Ramotswe tells the story of her life so far and explains how she was able to solve these cases.

Along the way, she describes the flora and fauna of the Africa she loves as well as the developing social and political situation. There is a sense that while she loves the traditional aspects of African life, she is very independent – and has experienced enough of the darker side of the traditional gender roles for example – and hopes that her homeland can move forward in a humane way. She doesn’t want it to become something different, just live up to its ideals and promise more fully.

The writing reflects her personality: simple and good natured, but aware of the sometimes tragic flaws of human nature. Precious Ramotswe is hard working, observant and quick enough on her feet to get to the bottom of the mysteries she is asked to investigate. It doesn’t hurt that she has well placed friends to help her out.

The problem for me wasn’t that the stories weren’t mildly entertaining, they were, it is that they never seemed to rise above this level. The pace or the suspense never really rises above the level of minor excitement. I never really felt that Mma Ramotswe was in danger of anything more than embarrassment and the cases were so simple as to be almost obvious. The descriptions of African life and the insights into society added an element of interest but were not sufficient to change the nature of the story. Perhaps, this is just the type of story McCall Smith tells. I will confess I have little to no experience with cozy type mysteries. I have a feeling that this is just an English cozy style mystery set in Africa (although there isn’t really any murder involved).

So to sum up: I enjoyed the quaint lighthearted style of McCall Smith and getting a better sense of aspects of life in Botswana but this style of mystery isn’t really “my cup of tea.” For those who enjoy this style, however, The No. 1 Detective Ladies’ Detective Agency opens up a whole new world to explore and get to know.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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