Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

The 12th book of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency continues the series' tradition of depicting the African nation of Botswana with gentle, affectionate humor, an understanding of human nature, and economical yet lyrical language. Precious Ramotswe's private detective business is doing fairly well now. Her secretary, nay, associate detective Grace Makutsi is about to marry Phuti Radiphuti, the young furniture tycoon who, funnily enough, has one foot less than the usual complement. Her husband, the kind and honest auto mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, has finally gotten one of his two apprentices through the exams to become a qualified, junior mechanic. And to keep life interesting, mysteries and other challenges keep popping up.

For one, the nefarious Violet Sepotho has decided to run for Parliament. Mma Makutsi and the orphan-farm lady, Mma Potokwane, agree Violet must be stopped. But how? For another riddle, both Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have sighted the former's late tiny white van, or possibly its ghost. But do vans have ghosts? Then there's the matter of Mma Makutsi's wedding shoes, which she buys on credit and then ruins while running after the possible ghost van. Also, one of the apprentices seems to be running away from his responsibility to a young unwed mother. And finally, there is a case of murder. Or, at least, what in Botswana is nearly as serious as murder: someone has taken a knife to the Achilles tendon of two cows and left them to die in the bush.

The cows belong to a client the No. 1 Ladies find just a little odd. At first he doesn't want to be seen coming to their office; he seems afraid of something. Later, he is convinced the culprit is his neighbor, who turns out to be a really nice guy. But Mma Ramotswe's investigation turns up clues that may lead to a solution much closer to the client's home - or, perhaps, no solution at all. It's a mystery that may never be definitively solved, but its implications are disturbing. Abuse and exploitation of women, nastiness to children, and cruelty to animals are all mixed up in it, and Mma Ramotswe's suspicions put her in an ethical dilemma.

The tightness and transparency of McCall Smith's writing makes this book, like all his others so far as I have read them, seem like light reading; one gets through it quickly and effortlessly. But its imagery, its character touches, its seemingly natural digressions on modern and traditional cultural values, and its heartfelt humanity, strike deep chords in one's sensibilities, and grow more substantial in the memory. It's fine writing that leaves an impression of having been well entertained without very much really happening, other than some common things like a couple getting married, a young man having a near miss with fatherhood, and a beloved van being restored to its grieving owner.

The next book in this series, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, is high on my to-read list. There are four more after it, and already a fifth is due to come out in October 2016, in what is only the longest of several long series of novels by a most prolific African-born, Scottish author, whose love of the part of the world depicted in this series is especially evident. Several of them, including this book, end with a geometric design made of repetitions of the word "africa" (uncapitalized). I'm not exactly sure what this is meant to express, but I think the correct explanation must have the word "love" in it somewhere.

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