The first time I heard of him was in reference to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, more from the HBO series, than from the original books. I was impressed with the series, which ran from 2008-2009 for a total of seven episodes. The books were hugely popular and some high-powered Hollywood types backed the series (Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, Richard Curtis and the Weinsteins) of a detective agency formed by some women in Botswana.
What you quickly discover about Smith’s writing is how character-driven they are, grounded in the details and twists of life, not super-charged melodrama. I liked the Ladies series enough to purchase the DVDs.
Alexander McCall Smith is no stranger to foreign lands, born in Zimbabwe, educated in Scotland, taught college in Ireland and Botswana, before settling in Scotland. He was educated in law, and taught medical law, and even co-founded a law school, before turning to writing. He has published dozens of novels and short stories, and authorized textbooks on the law. His first book was published in 1980, and he has been a prolific writer ever since. His forte is mystery, although not the kind you will find in David Baldacci or Dean Koontz books.
I admit that I have belatedly begun reading Smith’s books, and somehow I ended up with his Detective Varg series. Ulf Varg is a Swedish detective, a member of the Sensitive Crimes Division, a special branch of the police force. The cases that come before this division are rather odd-ball in nature. Granted, the Swedish society is quite different than America, and you get a very different view of life from Varg and his colleagues.
Smith’s series takes him all over the world, and you see the world and stories through his characters’ eyes and attitudes. Having lived in many of these places, he is able to take the reader into the physical localities and convincingly convey the customs and conventions of the characters in the stories.
Detective Varg is somewhat like Lt. Columbo, although with fewer quirky mannerisms. Like Columbo, you might not think of Varg as the prototype policeman. Varg has a mind that connects distant dots to form a picture of the crime, although you do not see him fitting the disjointed pieces together. After he has observed enough, he has the answer.
Varg hardly fits the investigative mold of an American detective, or at least what we have been conditioned to expect. Varg and his team are more like bookworms, who are more likely to discuss a case at a coffee bar in bookstore. I am reminded of the film, Three Days of the Condor, where a group of CIA academics read books and journals to gain information that is sent to intelligence analysts.
Varg is an internal character, you know of his loneliness and how he pines for a married colleague. He has a deaf dog that spends most of his time with a neighbor lady. Varg is emotionally handicapped, and he has regular sessions with an analyst, someone he has been seeing for awhile, but you are not sure if Varg is making any progress or the overall goal of his sessions.
In the most recent book, The Talented Mr. Varg, Varg’s interest in his co-worker, Anna, is sorely tested, as she believes him to be cheating on her. There are usually several different cases or stories in each Varg novel, testing the reader’s patience at times to understand how they relate to the main thrust of the novel. Smith seems to delight in detail and introducing information that seems to take you off-course, but somehow brings you back.
The pace of a Smith mystery is quite different from most contemporary writers; you wonder how these threads relate and move you toward a conclusion. Your heart will not race, you won’t feel spellbound to turn the next page, or even fully understand what Varg will do next. But you keep reading. Smith instills a dry humor that some readers will not catch; the characters and the situations often pose such oddity that you can’t avoid their originality. These are books that seem perfect for a summer afternoon on your patio or under a tree at a lake. Both of these I have done.
There appear to be four books in the Varg series, although two are ebook only format.
My next Smith read will be The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, a series about Bertie Pollock, a six year old genius in Edinburgh, Scotland. I sort of randomly picked this book, so we shall wee.