Monday, August 8, 2016

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is the 13th novel in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's first private detective, whose entire career has been shaped by a manual of detection written by an author named Clovis Anderson. Mma Ramotswe and her associate Mma Makutsi have all but memorized this book of pithy aphorisms and common-sense advice for beginning detectives. So they are a bit starstruck when Clovis Anderson himself shows up in their office and expresses an interest in what they do. Apparently he has come all the way from Muncie, Indiana to visit a female friend who hopes he can set aside his grief for his late wife and be with her. But consulting with his local fellow detectives can only relieve his discomfort so much, once he realizes how highly the No. 1 Ladies value his authority. Anderson is a man struggling with the feeling that his life does not matter. As with so many other people, Mma Ramotswe's kindness is the medicine he needs.

While the Clovis Anderson storyline has a bittersweet poignancy, an even stronger vein of unhappiness flows through the other channels of this book. Fanwell, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's younger apprentice (actually, a junior mechanic now), has fallen into legal trouble, thanks to an old friend who involved him in some shady business. Everyone believes he is innocent, but with the worst lawyer in Botswana representing him, the case might be hopeless. Meanwhile, Mma Potokwane, the orphan farm matron, has been dismissed from her post by a board of directors that has fallen under the sway of a modernizing businessman named Ditso Ditso. While Mma Ramotswe racks her brains for a way to help, she increasingly feels that everything is falling apart. And on top of all that, the contractor building the new house for newlyweds Phuti Radiphuti and Mma Makutsi is also up to something unsavory, but the only person who can tell them what it is is too afraid.

The series' Afro-Scottish author continues to depict Botswana as a place of desolate beauty and simple, modest prosperity; a place with a good but imperfect legal system, faded but still sound traditions, and humane values but inconsistently upheld; a place whose people have survived for generations, and have even found happiness, in a climate that much of the world would regard as marginally habitable; a place where old and new, rich and poor, good and bad spark off each other in fascinating ways. In the midst of it is Mma Ramotswe, who deplores conflict, who sees the goodness in flawed people, who is willing to fight (or sometimes beg) on behalf of those she cares about, and who does not believe in doing a wrong to right a wrong. Hanging around her, book after book, is (I imagine) a bit like breathing the dry air that blows off the Kalahari; it opens the airways and seemingly helps one breathe easy.

Following this book in the No. 1 Ladies sequence is the novella The Cleverness of Ladies, then The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (named after an institution first described in this book), then just a couple more books before the latest installment, Precious and Grace, which is slated for release in October 2016.

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