Monday, March 16, 2009

Traditionally Built

I was a bit late coming to the international phenomenon which is Alexander McCall Smith's 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series of novels; it began in 1998, with the publication of the eponymous novel, and I know that I registered the enthusiasm which greeted the first book and its two or three subsequent installments; so much so that when, on a trip to Vancouver, I saw that the first four titles were available at Book Warehouse on Granville Street I bought them. When I got home they disappeared onto my ever-increasing 'to be read' pile—which truth in advertising laws compel me to admit is really a bookcase—and there they stayed. Every now and then I would, in my quest for the next volume to read, allow my hand to hover over the first book; but then another title would clamour for attention, and I would pass on.

That changed in August 2006, when we took our usual trip to Nimpo Lake in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia. We've made the trek there every year for the last six or seven years, staying at Stewart's Lodge, a fishing resort on the shore of the lake. Most of the people who come to the area are serious fishermen, and the area is renowned for its fly-fishing; Nimpo Lake is said to be the float plane capital of the province, and every day there are dozens of flights in and out, ferrying people to outpost cabins on even more remote lakes that are only accessible by air. We do the odd bit of fishing, for the sake of appearance more than anything else, but for the most part we go there for peace and quiet, of which there is an abundance: no phone, no computer, no TV, no fax, just the cry of the loons, the crackle of the wood fire, and the chance to sit and read.

Every year Christopher and I each pack a box of books to Nimpo, taking far more than we can possibly read in the time allotted (typically ten days), but working on the basis that it's better to take too much than too little, especially when the lodge library offers little more than some Reader's Digest condensed novels and back issues of Field and Stream, and the nearest library or bookstore is several hours' drive away. In 2006 Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was in my box of books, and after reading Andrew Greig's autobiographical Preferred Lies and Patricia Carlon's intense thriller The Running Woman, I was in the mood for something lighter. And thus it was that my hand fell on Smith's book, and this time it stayed, and I settled down to make the acquaintance of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the No. 1—indeed only—Lady Detective in Botswana.

Three hours later I emerged from the book, blinking into the early afternoon sunlight, vaguely surprised to find myself in the heart of British Columbia's back country. Smith had plunged me so immediately, so deeply, into the Botswana setting that it took me a few moments to realise that I was not in Gaborone (pronounced, I later found, Ha-bore-oh-nay) or the surrounding countryside. His was a fully realised world; and he was able to convey effortlessly—or so it seemed—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the life of a country about which I had previously known nothing. Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe, but was then Rhodesia, and his love of Africa, and its people, rang true and clear on every page.

Nowhere is this more true than in the person of Mma Ramotswe herself (Mma—pronounced 'Mm-ah'—is a formal term of greeting or respect for a Batswana woman; for men the term is Rra, pronounced with a rolling 'r' and soft 'a'). Her father, Obed Ramotswe, has died (or is late, as a Batswana would say), and his daughter is now left to make her way in the world. Her father has left her a valuable herd of cattle—cows being a highly prized symbol of wealth and prosperity in Botswana—and Precious sells some of the cattle in order to start a new life in the capital city of Gaborone, where she decides to become the country's first, and only, lady detective. She takes Agatha Christie as an inspiration, sets up her shingle, hires a secretary (the formidable Mma Grace Makutsi, who is immensely proud of the fact that she graduated with 97%—the highest score ever—from the Botswana Secretarial College), and begins detecting.

As soon as I finished the book, I kicked myself that I hadn't brought the other titles that I had in the series with me, so impatient was I to read more about Mma Ramotswe and her world. Is there anything more frustrating to a book lover than knowing there are books you have and want to read, but can't get at? No matter; as soon as we got home I read the next three in quick succession, got myself up to date with the series at the first possible opportunity, and now buy each book as soon as it comes out. Yes, they're that addictive; and that good.

I should warn readers that anyone expecting traditional mysteries with lots of clues and red herrings, or action-packed adventures, may be disappointed. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels are 'mysteries' in the same way that Jane Austen's books could be called 'romance novels'. Mysteries there are aplenty, but they are generally low-key affairs; Smith is more interested in his characters—what makes them tick, how they relate to others and to the world around them—and in the changing face of Botswana, a country that has, better than many other African nations, weathered the storm of independence and the modern world, but which faces problems of its own; the devastation wrought by AIDS is often referred to, with Smith depicting families torn apart by the disease, yet admiring the quiet courage and love of the many women who have taken in nieces, nephews, and grandchildren and raised them as their own. And in Mma Ramotswe he has created a truly wonderful character, someone who is wise and kind, knowing and just, but who has endured violence and heartache, anger and pain. She also has a sense of humour—and an appreciation of the ridiculous—which often comes to her rescue; a large woman, she prefers to describe herself as 'traditionally built', and frequently decries the tendency amongst young Batswana women to try to emulate Western fashion and starve themselves into an (in her eyes) unnatural, and un-African, thinness.

When I heard that the BBC was making a film of the first novel I was somewhat worried; but to my surprise and delight, the film of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was perfect in every way (the fact that the late Anthony Minghella co-wrote and directed the film should have told me that it would be good, if not great). Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose were perfectly cast as Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi respectively—I would never have guessed they were American, so good were their accents—and the supporting cast were uniformly excellent. Even better, in some ways, was to be able to see, at last, Botswana and its people, in all their colour and beauty. A six-part series, starring the same actors, has just premiered in Britain on the BBC, and debuts in North America on HBO starting on 29 March; I've seen the first episode, and it's every bit as good as the film. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Ramotswe's good friend; I can only hope that another wonderful recurring character in the book, Mma Silvia Potokwane, head of the children's home outside Gaborone, appears in the series. The picture shows (left to right) Anika Noni Rose, Jill Scott, and Lucian Msamati in the film.

'What does this have to do with ghost stories, or writing?' I hear you cry. Absolutely nothing. But in a world where the trivial and the ephemeral are esteemed and celebrated, where loud and vulgar trumps quiet and thoughtful, I wanted to call attention to the quiet and thoughtful. We need more of that in the world; and Alexander McCall Smith has given it to us. Many thanks, Mr. Smith.


Charles Prepolec said...

Kris really enjoys the McCall Smith books. She got hooked a year or two back. I'll have to ask her what she thought of the film.

TheMadBlonde said...

I've picked up & tried twice to get into the first novel & just did not succeed. Not sure why, as I agree w/ you that it is well crafted & clearly imagined. I just never found myself involved enough w/ the characters, & I'm enough of an empath that that is what generally gets me through a piece. Glad to hear you enjoyed them, though, as that reinforces the many good things I've heard about the series.

Todd T said...

These are on my to-be-read pile as well. My mother has raced through them much as you did, and moved on to other Smith. The day draws near when I jump in too.

Barbara Roden said...


It could well be that the 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' books just aren't for you. If you want to try another Smith series, try the Isabel Dalhousie books, which go under the series title 'The Sunday Philosophy Club'; and the 'No. 44 Scotland Street' books are good fun. I also enjoyed Smith's retelling of African fables, THE GIRL WHO MARRIED A LION. It was interesting to note the similarities between the fables of Africa and the more traditional fables that we in the west know.

Barbara Roden said...


If you enjoy them, then Smith's books are definitely 'some moreish'; it's hard to stop at just one! They're quick reads, and I think the fact that Smith brings out two or three books a year has led some people to dismiss him, as they feel that anyone who writes that much so quickly can't be any good. I can see that there are cases where this attitude would be correct; but I don't think that's so with Smith. Wish I could come up with plots and ideas as quickly as he could!

TheMadBlonde said...

Thank you! I will put those on my virtual TBR pile (I love GoodReads for that).

BTW, have you read any of the Bangkok books by John Burdett? Quite a take on a police procedural in a VERY different culture, & w/ a supernatural angle too- the two I've read feature ghosts.

aalford said...

Thanks for pointing this out! My wife and I have been making our way through reruns of the old Jeremy Brett Holmes series, and were wondering where to turn next...