Sunday, July 12, 2015

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the first book in a series by the same name, featuring Botswana's first female private detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe. At this writing there are approximately 16 books in this series, including such interesting titles as Morality for Beautiful Girls, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

Botswana is a dry, sparsely populated country in southern Africa surrounded by Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Formerly a British protectorate, it became independent in 1966 when Mma Ramotswe was eight years old. In the decades between then and the mid-1990s when this story is set, it has evolved into one of the most successful countries in Africa, with a vibrant economy and lots of modern improvements. Mma Ramotswe (the Mma means approximately "Mrs.") is proud of her country, and she is proud to be its first female private detective.

Though this inaugural book of her adventures collects several of her early cases together, including some work for rich and powerful clients that help to establish her in business, her first big case involves the disappearance of a village schoolmaster's son.

The boy has been missing two years before Mma Ramotswe gets the case, and she has little doubt the boy is dead and she doesn't expect to be able to solve it. But it niggles at her. She senses that traditional witchcraft may be behind it, something that is both terrifyingly dangerous to go against and a shameful stain on all the modern progress her country has made. And then she gets a lead that may connect the death of this child to one of the most powerful men in the country - the type of man who can make life very difficult for those who cross him.

Along the way she solves the case of a missing husband, finds proof of a cheating ditto, clears up a hospital administrator's suspicions about one of his doctors, solves a case of insurance fraud, and uses her woman's intuition and native resourcefulness to supplement her lessons from a manual of private detection. She gets mixed up with an anxious father and his over-protected daughter. She tracks down a missing dog. She more or less perfects her technique of tailing a suspect, learns to tell a well-turned lie to get information or avoid trouble, and develops a reputation as a woman who can get things done.

In between charming vignettes from the early days of a detective agency are passages describing African life in such sensuous and heartfelt terms that you feel the warmth of the author's love for the land. You can almost smell the smoke of wood fires in the remote cattle stations, taste the dry air of the Kalahari, see the vivid color of the sunsets, and feel a trickle of sweat in the October heat. Though the book's author is now a Scotsman, this book is a potent reminder that he grew up in Zimbabwe, right next door to the Botswana depicted here, and like a character in this book's sequel Tears of the Giraffe, he seems to have a heart for Africa.

As for what this book is, it moves along in bite-sized episodes, like a series of short fictions, and sometimes takes a break from mystery to deliver personal memoirs of Mma Ramotswe, her late father, and their country that have the ring almost of lyrical nonfiction - that fact-and-fiction-blending type of popular journalism that some authors call "faction." A romance with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, a master auto mechanic, and the underlying mystery of the missing boy help tie it all together as a novel. And an audiobook narrated by Lisette Lecat, herself an African expatriate with a quiverful of ethnic dialects, puts the last perfection on an altogether pleasurable reading experience. I will be visiting Mma Ramotswe's agency again.

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