The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Alexander McCall Smith
Precious Ramotswe in Botswana sits in the shade and ponders the wisdom of her cattle farmer father, observes her neighbors, and cares for employers and subjects with humor. A clinic doctor has two different personalities depending on the day of the week. A Christian sect member vanishes. A witch doctor may have the bones of a kidnapped boy in his magic kit.
Mma. Precious Ramotswe has recently lost her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. He left behind a valuable herd of cattle, and Mma. Ramotswe uses the proceeds from the sale of the cattle to open a detective agency in her native Botswana. At first, the only assets the agency has besides the building itself are a tiny white van, an old typewriter, two telephones and two desks. Besides that, Mma. Ramotswe has a copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection, which she consults frequently. Mma. Ramotswe also decides that the agency won’t be taken seriously until she has a secretary. So she hires Mma. Grace Makutsi, a recent top-ranked graduate of the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. Together, the two of them launch the business.
This novel doesn’t focus on only one of Mma. Ramotswe’s cases; we follow several stories at once. For instance, Happy Babetse hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out the truth about a man who’s recently shown up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father. Botswana tradition requires Happy to take care of her father and allow him to live with her, so at first, she welcomes the man. Soon, though, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems with him. Mr. Paliwalar Patel hires the agency to follow his sixteen-year-old daughter Nandira, and find out what boy she is secretly seeing. The agency is also investigating the disappearance of Peter Malatsi, whose wife thinks he may have run off with another woman. There’s also a case of insurance fraud, a stolen car, and the mysterious behavior of a local doctor. Finally, and most difficult for Mma. Ramotswe, is the case of Ernest Pakotati, who writes to Mma. Ramotswe asking her to find his missing eleven-year-old son. I
One important element woven throughout this novel is its very authentic sense of the culture of Botswana. Even the style of the novel gives readers a taste of the culture. It’s not written in the linear, strictly chronological fashion in which many crime fiction novels are written. Rather, it’s reflective and at times, makes use of “flashbacks.” We also see the culture in other ways. Here, for instance, are some of Mma. Ramotswe’s thoughts as she investigates the man who is pretending to be Happy Babetse’s father: McCall Smith also shares the culture of Botswana in small details, such as houses, food and other aspects of daily life.The dialogue is also an important element in this novel. It’s reflective of the culture and the place, and MCall Smith also uses the dialogue to give the reader a strong sense of the characters as well.Another element that runs through The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a gentle sense of humour. For instance, Alice Busang hires the Mma. Ramotswe to find out if her husband Kremlin has been unfaithful. Mma. Ramotswe takes the unusual step of pretending to flirt with Krremlin Busang to prove that he’s a ladies’ man. She tricks Busang into having his picture taken with her and shows the photograph to his wife. One of the strongest elements in this novel is the set of characters. Mma. Ramotswe herself is a strong woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. She’s also intelligent, shrewd and wise. She’s got traditional values and a strong sense of ethics, too. Yet, her character is multi-dimensional. For instance, she has a sense of ethics, but is not afraid to lie if the result of the lie brings about a greater good. She’s compassionate, too. For example, when she discovers a case of insurance fraud, she confronts the man who committed it with what she knows. He admits that he’s guilty, but explains that he’s committed the fraud because he has to support his parents as well as his sister’s children. Instead of turning the guilty party over to the police, Mma. Ramotswe agrees not to pursue the case, but makes the man promise not to commit any more fraud. We get the sense, too, that he will keep his word.
The unique setting, the sense of culture and use of language give the reader the unmistakable “feel” of Botswana. The gentle humor and strong characters pull the reader in, and the cases themselves are believable. In this novel, too, we learn quite a bit of Mma. Ramotswe’s backstory. We learn about her father, who worked in the mines in South Africa for many years to support the family. We learn about her disastrous first marriage to jazz musician Note Makoti. We learn about her upbringing, too. So readers who are interested in this series will probably want to start with this novel.
About Alexander McCall Smith:
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland.