Before I get into this review, I feel obligated to inform you that normally I am not much of a mystery novel person. There are a few exceptions, but most of the time I find them rather droll, and in between the various turns and plot twists all I can really focus on is the voice of the author hidden in among all of these revelations, screaming, “Look how clever I am! Look at me! I am a genius! You never even guessed it did you? Y-you did? But…there was a twist…predictable? What?? Moi?”
Now, I do enjoy mysteries in the forms of shows and movies, however; they are the work of not just the writers, but the producers, the costume designers, the set and prop departments, actors, actresses, lighting, camera rigging, casting director, and a million other moving parts. Because of this, one could argue that it takes a single piece of art (if the story was well composed) and expands it into a broader collaborative work, eliminating the feeling of attention-seeking and replacing it with a sense of wholeness. At least with mystery stories.
Anyway, as a result of my perhaps unfair bias against such novels, I rarely read them. However, I’d stumbled across a sale at my local thrift store and…well. I’ll just admit it. The cover looked cool, and I was in a desperate reading slump. I snapped it and a few others up (it was one of those ‘fill the bag for five bucks’ sales) and then let it sit on my side table for about two weeks.
When I finally overcame my own stubbornness and read the damn thing…
I absolutely loved it.
So, here I review The No.1 Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith:
Oddly enough for a mystery novel, the mysteries, although entertaining, kind of take the back seat in this tale, and the focus is more on the personal stories of Ramotswe and her late father, Obed.
Mma Ramotswe is what all great women aspire to be; wise, comfortable (and indeed, proud) in her own skin, caring, subtle, and clever. Her love for her country of Botswana and the people within is touching and infectious to the point that this white girl from the States was pining for the plains. She has a hidden grace that can only come from being hurt at a young age and persevering through the pain and betrayal, in this case, caused by her now ex-husband. At times, I honestly forgot it was a work of fiction. From witch-doctors to shopping sprees in Johannesburg, controlling fathers in gilded prisons to chasing chickens out of office buildings, this short little book describes with gentle grace but no fluff the daily toils and historical hardships of life for the people of her home, as well as the sexism a single businesswoman in Africa encounters even now.
One aspect I appreciated was the verbal dancing within the interactions Ramotswe has with others. She always figures out how to get around delicate situations, which only grow harder as the people who hire her services become more and more high profile. A self-taught detective, (via a mail-in course kit) she nevertheless has a way of knowing something is off in the way a person talks to her. She operates with a method similar to the style of the ‘clever wife’ archetype that is used to classify old fairytales.
One the other hand, her father, Obed, was a man in need of funds to support his family, and was lured by the promises of wealth into becoming a miner during Africa’s gold rush of the fifties and sixties. Unfortunately, the working conditions were extreme; Dust was everywhere, and little to no breathing protection was available. The miners were divided into groups based on the nation they were brought in from (Zulus with Zulus, Botswanas with Botswanas, etc.) and fights and high crime were commonplace. At one point, Obed ran back into the mine alone to retrieve a canteen for a friend before the shaft was to be blasted, and witnessed a murder. He told his team leader, the only white man he trusted, and with his help, escaped.
Fast forward to the late nineties and you have his baby daughter Ramotswe, now grown up, holding his hand at his deathbed. Ironically enough, the reason he fell ill in the first place was from breathing in the dust of that mine all those years ago. It almost feels as if the mine wanted him back; it wouldn’t let him go. He tells her to sell his beloved cattle to help sustain her financially until she figures out what she wants to do with her life. She tells him words to the effect of, “Great Dad, because I want to open a detective agency with just women.” to which he reacted with “Wait. What?” and died before he could really do anything about it.
The most powerful character of all, however, is Africa itself. Smith does an excellent job of vividly personifying the elements of nature that are so dear to Ramatswes’ heart. You will feel the heat from the plains on your face, you will hear lions grunting in the grass in the night, and you will see in your mind’s eye the empty terrifying beauty of the Kalahari Desert stretching out before you like a final desolate sea.
Three chairs. A typewriter. Two desks. A white van. A cup of tea, and the wild plains of Africa just out the window. This is what clever, wise, and curvaceous Mma Precious Ramotswe defines as what she deems necessary to run a detective agency. She isn’t wrong.
Facts and further info:
NOT appropriate for children or young teens. There are some scenes of violence, including one in which the main character is at one point raped by her husband, and although the scene is not necessarily graphic, it is, in my opinion, too intense and too detailed for a younger audience.
Was an international bestseller in its day.
Has about a decade more sequels.
Was later made into A BBC show starring Claire Benedict as Mma Ramotswe and was shot on location in Africa.
Originally published in 1998. The edition I read was a reprint from the early 2000’s.
“But look at it now; a lady detective agency, right here in Gaborone, with me, the fat lady detective, sitting outside and thinking these thoughts about how what is one thing today becomes quite another thing tomorrow.”
“I do not think this is so, because there is no difference between white men and black men; we are all the same; we are just people.”
“‘You should have seen him,’ she said. ‘A real ladie’s man. Stuff in his hair. Dark glasses. Fancy shoes. He had no idea how funny he looked. I much prefer men with ordinary shoes and honest trousers.'”
What do you think? Did you ever read this book? Do you think you might now? What was the last book you read recently? I might review it next time!