A Detective Agency Par Excellence
As far as detective stories go, this isn’t the traditional blood-and-gore or serious sleuthing stuff. You won’t find a spinster nosing around her neighbours’ houses or a suave Scandinavian policeman scraping blood off a knife (what with the heat, I’m certainly in the mood for a Henning Mankell set in the coldest, darkest Swedish forests). However, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency appeals to you in an entirely different way. “Traditionally-built” Mma Ramotswe, with her efficient, lonely assistant Mma Makutsi, runs a detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana. Don’t let the name fool you, though- it isn’t meant to serve only female clients, but is actually an agency run by women. Lipstick smudges and business intrigues are their main source of income- but you do not expect sophisticated murders planned with clinical precision in the Kalahari, do you?
Of the eleven books in the series, I’ve read only one- The Kalahari Typing School for Men– but it now has me hooked to Alexander McCall Smith. His prose is light and easy; bereft of pretence and frills, his books are refreshingly delightful. Think of languid summer afternoons, a hot breeze, endless cups of bush tea, and occasional doses of work. The peace cannot last forever, though, can it? Along comes a rival, a man who uses his gender to promote his own detective agency, distributing pamphlets that sing glories of his CID days in South Africa and get slightly more nebulous when it comes to his time in New York (but oh- there is a picture of his against a backdrop of the city, proof enough of his superior skills).
The new detective in town isn’t Mma Ramotswe’s only problem, though. Her fiance, Mr. JLB Matekoni, is still not ready with a date for their wedding, and the orphans she is giving a foster home are suffering crises of their own. In the midst of domestic turmoil comes along a case which gets inextricably linked with the first glimmer of conjugal possibilities in Mma Makutsi’s life that her new typing school brings her- and Mma Ramotswe’s cup of troubles is filled to the brim. Things are of course smoothened out in the end, and it is this optimism and light-heartedness that makes it such a delightful read; there are enough people writing about bleak hours (and why does Anne Enright come to mind so strongly), and here is a modern day Wodehouse to smooth away than tiny wrinkle on your forehead without being outrageously funny.
There is a warm earthiness in McCall Smith’s writing, redolent of the fragrances and flavours of RK Narayan’s writing- and this conviction of mine was only strengthened when I heard of McCall Smith’s respect for the Indian author’s writing (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/mar/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview24). Kindred spirits they are, in a sense. The Scotsman doesn’t aspire towards anything overly ambitious- you wouldn’t need to look up a dictionary constantly as you are borne gently down his quiet, unhurried stream of words. His wit makes only subtle appearances in this book, unlike its more gregarious self in 44 Scotland Street, but you’re not for a moment bored. The gentle manifestations of the affection you feel for a neighbour or a friend remind you that all might be right with the world, after all.
And now, it’s time for me to lay my hands on The Good Husband of Zebra Drive.