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Precious Ramotswe is the proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set up with money left to her by her Daddy, Obed Ramotswe. She’s Botswana’s finest (and only) female detective. Her fiancé, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and they are planning their life together. Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe investigates the disappearance of an American student a decade ago and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni accidentally adopts not one, but two orphans.
Last year I bought the first book in this series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”. I read and enjoyed it; it passed a few idle hours one sleepless night. With no intention of reading it again I sold the book on Amazon within a matter of days. I’d no thought either of reading any more in the series until I found “Tears of the Giraffe” at the library and another sleepless night was filled.
I’m a voracious reader of detective fiction, but despite being a book about a detective this isn’t detective fiction. It isn’t about the careful accumulation of evidence and elimination of other possibilities. It’s about intuition, hunches and guess work – together with a lot of luck and coincidence. It’s not a bad story though and it’s certainly well-written. Alexander McCall Smith writes with an elegant simplicity and the words slip from the page into the brain with little effort on the part of the reader.
This isn’t a book about Africa either – well, certainly not about the Africa of today. There are echoes of a post-Colonial past, with McCall Smith drawing on his upbringing in Zimbabwe. The series has been accused of being patronising to Africans. It’s difficult for a white who has never been to Africa to judge such matters, but I felt that the characters had dignity. The good get their rewards and the less-than-good get their just deserts with an emphasis on traditional African values. The book’s about the responsibility that we all have to our fellow men. There’s an exploration of the need to do right and just occasionally, very occasionally, the need to do wrong to achieve the right result. It’s a modern-day version of a morality tale.
Reading the book you could be forgiven for thinking that it is actually half a dozen short stories woven together. The detective agency has just two cases – the missing student and a man whose wife is unfaithful to him. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s maid is determined to stop his marriage, with unfortunate consequences, whilst Mma Ramotswe’s secretary wants to become a private detective herself. I laughed aloud at the vision of the hapless Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni taking on the orphans and allowed myself a whoop of glee at the thought of who might be in line to take over Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The interweaving of the stories is very skilfully done – in fact it’s so well done that it looks simple.
If I have a quibble about the book it’s that the characters are rather, er, black and white! The good are wonderfully so, but the bad have few, if any, redeeming features. Life is rarely that simple. It means too that there is little in the way of surprise as to how matters resolve themselves.
This book could be read on its own. Much of the story line from the first book in the series is recapitulated, but it is more rewarding to read it after having read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It’s one of those rare books which have universal appeal. I can see it being read by men or women and I would even be happy to give the book to a child who was a confident reader. They might struggle initially with some of the African names, but they would love the story. There are no sexually explicit or graphically violent scenes.
• Paperback 224 pages (August 7, 2003) • Publisher: Abacus • ISBN: 0349116652 • Price £6.99 but currently available on Amazon for £5.59