I have written about author Alexander McCall Smith and his quirky series of books including The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
I bought the HBO DVD series long before I ever cracked open one of the source books. Sadly, the series only ran for one season. Strangely, it was only this year that I started reading the books and I’m devouring every one I can find.
This series is not Agatha Christie, it is more like Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire collection of books, not the TV series. These books share a lot in common, they are less about the trail of solving a complicated case; these are character books that are episodic in nature. The characters are sidetracked by interesting events and concerns not central to the case. You are not always sure you are reading something, but you do not mind a bit. There is great joy in their interaction with other characters and in the humor that surrounds them.
When Longmire was transferred to the screen as a series, it was less about the world of Walt Longmire and more about crimes and intricate character relationships. Most of the humor and character shading was gone.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency takes place in a village in Botswana. Yes, you are in Africa. Mma Precious Ramotswe opens the detective agency with money her father left her. She has no experience being a detective, but she buys a copy of Clovis Andersen’s The Principles of Private Detection, and follows the lessons. In her culture, there are no female detectives; she is the first and only one. Building her business takes time and happens slowly with word of mouth.
Mma Ramotswe is a traditionally built woman, which is their way of saying she is large figured. In Botswana, the people are very polite, usually addressing each other with the full name, and using other terms like traditionally built, and saying someone is late, instead of deceased.
Mma Ramotswe has a personality that can match her size, and like most women of her country, she is polite and respectful, but she can unleash her forceful and determined nature when necessary. In Botswana, most women are still brought up to look for a husband and then fight to keep him, as men are known to wander. Marriages also involve a payment to the bride’s family, with the most favored form being cattle. A person’s wealth and standing is often based on the head of cattle they own.
Mma Ramotswe is known to drive her tiny white van, a vehicle that is more like family than transportation. The van is old and often causes her problems, but it is mostly faithful to her and she is to it.
In one book, Mma Ramotswe’s mechanic husband finally sells the tiny white van and gives her a newer blue van. She is in tears and proceeds to track down the tiny white van, purchases it back and has it restored to working condition. Her bond with the tiny white van is absolute.
Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, a car repair garage where he employs two apprentice mechanics, eventually proposes to Mma Ramotswe and they move into her house. She always refers to him by his full name. There is respect and admiration, but you never you never get a sense of passion between then.
Mma Grace Makutsi is hired to be a secretary at the agency. She can be prickly and constantly refers to the 97 percent she received on the final exam at the secretarial college. She wears that score like a huge medal. Right away, she begins to exert herself beyond her clerical duties, and moves herself into an assistant detective role based on helping Mma Ramotswe with a case. She is also asked to help Mr J. L. B. Matekoni with administrative tasks at the garage and even was the acting manager when he took a leave. She became assistant director and partner at the detective agency. She provides some dramatic conflict in the books, both to Mma Ramotswe and with her own life.
There are other characters who weave in and out of the series. Charlie and Fanwell are apprentice mechanics, Phuti Radiphuti is Mma Grace Makutsi’s fiancé and eventual husband, Violet Sephotho is a thorn in Grace’s life, a rival at the secretarial college and who tried to steal her fiancé, Mr Polopetsi is an assistant at the agency, and Mma Silvia Potokwani runs the local orphanage who provides three foster children to Mma Ramotswe, who lost a child in her first marriage.
McCall Smith lived and taught college in Botswana in his youth, so his description of life there is quite detailed and rings authentic in the smallest ways. The books are breezy and deceptively fast reading, but if you do not take your time, you might miss savoring the flavor.
With the arrival of How to Raise an Elephant in 2020, there are 21 books in the series. I am anxiously awaiting my turn to read this new adventure for Mma Ramotswe and the others.