Saturday, January 30, 2016

Two by Alexander McCall Smith

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the eighth novel of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, that series of charming diversions set in the African country of Botswana by a Zimbabwe-born Scottish writer, Mma Ramotswe lets her husband, a good man and a good auto mechanic, try his hand at detection. She also has a near miss with losing her trusty assistant, for since Mma Makutsi became engaged to the heir of a successful furniture store, she has started to chafe against being a mere assistant.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is assigned to help the rudest woman in Botswana find out if her husband is cheating on her. Partly because of her brusque refusal to give him a clear description of her husband's car, he inadvertently follows the wrong man in an embarrassing mistake that, by luck, turns out for the best.

Both Mma Makutsi and Charlie, the older of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two silly young apprentices, try their luck with other careers. Mma Makutsi's rash resignation lasts half a day before a humiliating encounter with her secretarial-school nemesis sends her running back to the detective agency. Charlie's attempt to launch the Number One Ladies' Taxi Service comes to an ignominious end before it has even started.

Meanwhile, the agency solves a couple mysteries in the low-key, down-to-earth way typical of the series. Mma Makutsi flushes out a thief who is stealing from his employer by offering a piece of advice based on a flawed understanding of human nature. Mma Ramotswe discovers the crime behind the unexplained deaths of three hospital patients and, surprisingly, it isn't murder. Even Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni foils a criminal conspiracy. But as in their other adventures, the most interesting discoveries they make are about their relationships among each other.

I am slowly but steadily working my way through this series and one or two others by the same author. I enjoy them for their economy of language, their gentle insight into human character, their sense of humor, and their flashes of lyricism shined upon a culture and a country of largely unsung beauty.

This review was based in part on an audiobook read by Lisette Lecat, and in part by a hardcover copy, both borrowed from the local public library. The next book in the series is The Miracle at Speedy Motors.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the sequel to The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland reflects, as moral philosophers do, on duty, weakness of will, and even whether memory may be seated somewhere other than the brain. Along the way she is diverted by a mystery in which a heart transplant recipient seems to have received, as well, the donor's dying memory of the face of his killer.

For one thing, her niece Cat returns from attending a wedding in Italy, followed by a handsome Italian suitor who is closer to Isabel's age. While she considers trying to seduce Tomasso and enjoying herself a bit, she struggles with concern about Jamie, Cat's ex-boyfriend, for whom she harbors inappropriate feelings while he only wants Cat back. Her advice, when bassoonist Jamie tells her he plans to turn down an offer from the London Symphony Orchestra in order to stay close to Cat, is both hard for her to give and nearly the end of their friendship.

In the midst of these personal dilemmas, Isabel agrees to help a man named Ian explore the meaning of the painful flashes of memory that he fears will lead him to reject his new heart. Not for the first time, her sleuthing - what someone with a less finely calibrated sense of ethical duty might even call nosing into other people's business - puts her in possible danger, when she recognizes the man following her on the street as the possible killer of Ian's heart donor. As in her previous case, though, the real solution turns out to have more to do with the pain of a young man's surviving loved ones, with the healing of guilt and grief.

In this series, the Scottish author of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series displays more of his proprietary blend of humor, scenic and cultural charm, reflection on matters of character, and mystery-suspense that simmers on low heat. McCall Smith hits notes I have heard him play before, including references to en brosse haircuts and akrasia (cf. 44 Scotland Street), but these references have a comforting familiarity, much like how fans of his Botswana-based novels might take comfort in their repeated references to Mma Ramotswe's "traditional build" and Mma Makutsi's "difficult skin," etc. The Edinburgh setting has its own palate of colors that the artist uses in all the books he sets there, until certain phrases simply evoke Edinburgh. When I tire of them, I will stop reading them. For now, though, I just hope the local library system can supply me with the third book in this series: The Right Attitude to Rain.

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