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The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency

by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus, 2008; first published by Polygon, 1998)

A tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot…. And three mugs — one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need?

Delightful. Rarely can a book be summed up so succinctly, but Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is exactly that—equally as rare as it is delightful. The first in a series that narrates the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of said detective agency, McCall Smith enthrals us not just with an unusual style of narration, but also a very unorthodox setting.

Precious Ramotswe is about as unlikely a private detective as you would expect—indeed “the only lady private detective in Botswana”. None of the slick smarts of the Kinsey Milhones and Kate Brannigans of the world. That’s not to say that Mma (pronounced mmm-a, with a short a at the end) Ramotswe is lacking in the intelligence department. Oh no… she is an extremely sharp and resourceful woman, and her Daddy would have been proud of her today if he had been alive to see her.

In her mid-thirties, of generous girth (“She was proud of being a traditionally built African lady, unlike those terrible, stick-like creatures one saw in the advertisements”), possessed of a clear mind and sound intuition, Mma Ramotswe set up her agency after the death of her father, who left her rather well off with the proceeds of the sale of his cattle.

“I want you to have your own business,” he said to her on his deathbed. “… A butchery maybe. A bottle store. Whatever you like.”
She held her father’s hand and looked into the eyes of the man she loved beyond all others, her Daddy, her wise Daddy.. who had scrimped and saved to make life good for her….
“I am going to set up a detective agency. Down in Gaborone. It will be the best one in Botswana. The No. 1 Agency.”
For a moment her father’s eyes opened wide and it seemed as if he was struggling to speak.
“But… but…”
But he died before he could say anything more.

And thus the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was born. There were usual start-up hiccups. At first business was slow and at times even Mma Ramotswe doubted herself. But then, to her pleasant surprise, she found herself quite in demand. Tracing missing husbands, unveiling fraudulent relatives, digging up fake insurance claims, tackling difficult fathers—all this and more were quite up Mma Ramotswe’s alley. Her methods largely comprised a practical approach to any problem at hand—indeed, that was her attitude to life in general. Her cases might be quite run of the mill, but her solutions are more often than not unconventional and quirky. Not every criminal ended up behind bars, but rest assured justice was served. Of course, all this is not to say there were never any nasty surprises in store for her, as she found out once when she set herself as bait to trap a cheating husband and ended up with an angry client who accused her of being a husband-stealer.

According to Mma Ramotswe, a person’s face told you everything you needed to know about them, especially the eyes: “That was why people who had something to hide wore sunglasses indoors. These were the ones you had to watch very carefully.” A lot of her success, she believed, had to do with the fact that “people in Botswana liked to talk… and the mere mention of the fact that she was a private detective let loose a positive outpouring of information on all sorts of subjects. It flattered people, she concluded.” But the native garrulousness did sometimes backfire, as she found out once when she sought information from a roadside stall owner on a young woman she was tailing. It turned out that the resourceful quarry in turn ferreted out from the stall owner that Mma Ramotswe was a private eye who was following her!

The significant people in Mma Ramotswe’s life include her secretary Mma Makutsi, who types out reports and invoices, and sometimes makes tea, and who also sometimes makes her employer wonder if there’s any point hiring her. But “what sort of detective agency had no secretary? She would be a laughing stock without one, and clients… could well be frightened away.” The other was Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Mutual admiration and cups of tea eventually gave way to a lasting friendship, and—at least that’s what Mr J.L.B. Matekoni hoped—something more. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni (as he is always referred to—but it makes for an amusing rather than annoying aside), while an unabashed admirer of Mma Ramotswe, is actually an honest, mild-mannered gent who often finds himself drawn inadvertently into dangerous and ethically dubious enterprises on her behalf. And despite his best intentions of standing up to her, he finds himself swayed each time.

The first part of the book talks about Mma Ramotswe’s past, her upbringing and the background that led her to her current circumstances. Who would ever believe that the unflappable, eminently sensible Mma Ramotswe could have married a regrettable worm of a trumpet player in her youth? But all that is firmly in the past, and Precious Ramotswe was “a realist, who inhabited the present”. The rest of the book deals with the early days of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, comprising mainly of short cases and incidents, and one sinister case that is finally solved towards the end.

McCall Smith’s style of writing in this series is highly unusual and equally endearing. Indeed, it was quite a contrast to The Sunday Philosophy Club, his only other work I have read. He presents to us an unusual third world location through the eyes of an immensely engaging character that defies all stereotypes. His own experience of growing up and living in Africa no doubt went a long way in his mastery of the setting. I was a little confused about the correct terminology for Botswana natives, and it helps if you know that the people of Botswana are referred to as the Batswana (singular, Motswana).

Humour forms a significant part of the narrative, sometimes subtle and quite often tongue-in-cheek:

“Aha!” said Mr. Patel. “… You detectives are very clever men.”
“Women,” said Mma Ramotswe.
Mr. Patel looked at her sideways, but said nothing. He had no time for modern ideas.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is not a conventional detective story; nor is it a conventional read in any manner. And you need not be a fan of crime fiction or detective stories to savour it. There is just one guarantee—give it a miss and it will be your loss.

RATING: 9/10