Series about Botswanan detective agency continues

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

The many worldwide fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books will be delighted with this latest book in the series.

This series of books, set in Botswana’s capital of Gaborone, follows the adventures of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, a middle-class woman who for various reasons (read the first book in the series for the full story) has founded a small detective agency catering to female clients, who often feel that male detectives do not truly listen to them and fully understand their needs.

Her business is just successful enough to stay viable and provide a living for herself and her quirky assistant Grace Makutsi. Other continuing characters include Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs the auto repair garage sharing facilities with the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency; his assistants Charlie and Fanwell; Grace’s husband, furniture-store owner Phuti Radiphuti; Mma Ramotswe’s two foster children; and various other individuals.

These delightful characters give us a slice of life for contemporary Botswana, a small country on South Africa’s doorstep.  It is a relative African success story of political stability and sustainable economic development.  Readers will learn lots about everyday life and customs of a country we generally hear little about, while being hugely entertained at the same time.

The primary mysteries of this volume focus on two cases.  One involves a disputed claim to a rural estate.  Why is the lawyer who contacts Mma Ramotswe so certain that the apparent nephew heir who has come forward is a fraud?

The other case involves a small businesswoman receiving threats from someone apparently trying to put her “Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” out of business. Is this a case of witchcraft, revenge by the ex-wife of the owner’s husband, a business competitor, or some other personal vendetta?

It is up to Mma Ramotswe to quietly start asking questions and visiting various people until she exposes the truth in these cases and vindicates those who have been wronged.

She uses typical detective techniques such as checking public records but also learns an amazing amount from talking and listening to various people over a cup of tea.  She has an uncanny sense of realizing when someone says something that does not “add up.”

There are many interesting “slice-of-life” portraits in this book (and the others in the series), which painlessly and pleasantly offer fascinating glimpses into everyday Botswanan life.   For example, when Grace and Phuti have a baby, Grace is faced with questions of dealing with an overly traditional and overbearing aunt-in-law who moves in and takes over.

Grace also must decide how long to stay at home with the baby before returning to work at the detective agency.  Another time the couple finds a cobra in their bedroom and has to figure out how to safely get rid of it.  When Mma Ramotswe accepts a free facial from the owner of the beauty salon, she realizes she is obligated to reciprocate with detective work to unmask the person threatening the beautician. 

A continuing theme throughout is the clash between modern and traditional African ways, and the main characters often find themselves caught in the middle, identifying some with both camps.

Should Grace stay at home with her baby or return to her detective work?  When Mma Ramotswe’s husband wonders if he should be a more “modern” husband, he signs up for a course on the subject, which only makes him more uncomfortable.  Should he share more of the domestic responsibilities with his wife?

Author Alexander McCall Smith is a very prolific writer of several series of fiction books, including the “Isabel Dalhousie” and “44 Scotland Street” series, both set in Scotland.  However, it is the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series which has been his most popular.

He was born in Zimbabwe, taught medical law in both Botswana and Scotland, and clearly knows the African culture.

For readers new to the series, I would probably recommend starting with the first in this series, though after that the order is less critical.

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