Saturday, October 10, 2015

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Morality for Beautiful Girls
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the third book about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency of Gaborone, Botswana, Africa, Mma Precious Ramotswe's highly capable secretary gets her second promotion. First Mma Makutsi rose to Assistant Detective. And now that the agency's offices are to be consolidated with those of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, while its proprietor and Mma Ramotswe's fiance Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is temporarily indisposed, she has also become Acting Manager of the garage.

Mma Makutsi quickly brings order to a business struggling under the idleness of its two frivolous young apprentices. The agency, meanwhile, carries on with its succession of low-key cases. Mma Ramotswe does an African impression of Miss Marple, staying at the family farm of a government man who thinks his sister-in-law is plotting to poison his brother. Mma Makutsi helps a fashion maven choose the most deserving winner of the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. And while Mma Potokwane, matron of the Botswana Orphan Farm, looks after Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni during his course of antidepressants (don't ask), the possibility niggles at all of them that one of her young charges may have been a wild boy raised by lions.

As this series unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that it is not a set of murder mysteries or crime novels. The title of this book holds a hint as to what kind of stories are in it. Besides exploring the values of Africa at a tipping point between the traditional and all that is modern, it also provides deep reading of the character's hearts and a loving, lyrical depiction of the country next door to where its Scotland-based author was brought up. The scene when Mma Ramotse wakes up early at her client's family farm, basking in the distilled beauty of the land just before the sun rises and coarsens everything, is one of several passages of understated beauty conveyed with an exquisite economy of language. This is just one of many possible examples I have spotted, so far in this series, of what another reviewer (quoted on the cover of the next book in the series) described as "art concealing art." It is, I imagine, the perfect emblem of a dry and sparsely populated country whose natural beauty must, at its best, seem understated.

Like the books before it, I enjoyed hearing this one read on audio CD by Lisette Lecat, an international actress of African birth whose voice has a vast range not only of pitch and dialect but also of character and expression. I have heard few female audio-book readers who can deliver male dialogue as convincingly as she can, and even fewer male readers who can cross that line as well from the other direction. But I am especially in love with the voice she reserves for Mma Ramotswe, the kind of voice that makes me think a "traditionally-built" Botswanan woman might just be my type. After coming to the end of this book, I wasted no time before visiting the local library and checking out the fourth book in the series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

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