It’s not surprising that Alexander McCall Smith can interweave moral and philosophical comments along with colorful characters, intriguing elements of plot and the stark beauty of the African landscape into his best-selling series of novels, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
Years of teaching law at both the University of Botswana as well as the University of Edinburgh has given this prolific novelist a keen sense of justice plus a charming and cheerful means of presenting information.
When speaking of her previous African experience, McCall Smith placed the following words in the mouth of Mrs. Andrea Curtin: “People suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others.” (Tears of the Giraffe)
“The Miss Marple of Botswana.” The New York Times Book Review
Utterly alone, after her husband’s death from pancreatic cancer, the American woman returns to Gaborone seeking information regarding the disappearance of her son, Michael. Having lost a child herself, the lady detective shares the same, “sadness that never goes away,” and accepts a case even the police couldn’t solve 10 years ago. “I shall help you, my sister,” was her compassionate reply.
While McCall Smith may not be consciously preaching love your neighbor as yourself, the principle sneaks into his prose anyway. Possibly, his intent was nothing more than painting a positive picture of the country and people of Botswana. In the author’s mind, Mma Precious Ramotswe may not be classified as a Good Samaritan just another fine example of a caring African woman. Running a close second in understanding others, Mma Grace Makutsi defers her paycheck until the struggling agency begins to turn a profit. (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency)
In Morality for Beautiful Girls, Ramotswe tangles with a feral child, the finalists in a beauty pageant and a suspicious cook.
In Chapter 7, ‘The Girl with 3 Lives,’ Mma Ramotswe spends considerable time contemplating moral behavior in several different aspects. (Morality For Beautiful Girls)
- The employment and treatment of servants : Well-paid owners of large houses are obliged to employ servants, maintained the lady detective, after ending her friendship with an uncaring woman who boasted of cutting the maid’s wages.
- Do really bad people like: Ugandan military dictator, Idi Amin, and the Prime Minister of South African, Henrik Verwoerd, have friends?
- To what code of mortality should an African adhere: The old Botswana morality? The Ten Commandments?
Also in Morality for Beautiful Girls, the writer dramatizes today’s disturbing lack of principles by handing Mma Makutsi her first case. This secretary turned detective is given three days to determine the honesty of the four finalists vying for the title of Miss Botswana. With time running short, the fledgling sleuth seeks help from one of the garage apprentices, to pinpoint the recipient most suited for the honor.
Knowing that children are good for Botswana, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni allows the matron at the Orphan Farm to coerce him into adopting two children. Secretly hoping that the boy, Puso, will be interested in cars, the mechanic dreams of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors becoming a family business managed by father and son.
“I was enchanted by the character of Precious Ramotswe and the sly humor of Alexander McCall Smith’s writing, his deft evocation of a culture.” Anthony Minghella
Can’t you just see the author’s impish grin when he leaves the boy drawing a picture in a patch of oil and pushes 12-year-old Motholeli forward in her wheel chair? “But this girl, this strange serious child who had come into his life, had the makings of a mechanic.” Instead of grumpily warning the handicapped girl away from the greasy engines, the proprietor of Speedy Motors explains what needs to be done to fix the minibus.
To further emphasize the author’s belief in the capabilities of women, he bestows Mma Precious Ramotswe with amazing intuition and phenomenal powers of observation which enable her to become the first lady detective in Botswana.
Another example of female superiority can be found in book three when Mma Makutsi becomes Assistant Manager of Speedy Motors. Armed only with her 97% and knowledge of typewriters, the secretary reorganized the repair process keeping the apprentices working steadily. Her administrative skills even outshines those of the absentee proprietor. Now how’s that for an endorsement of the effectiveness of a female manager?
The No. 1 Ladies Series is close to Smith’s heart. Check out some more info on the series directly from the author here: http://conversations.psu.edu/episodes/ale
Readers and viewers of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency need not be reminded that the outspoken Grace Makutsi has finely-tuned concepts of right and wrong. She expresses indignation when hard-working girls, such as herself, lose high-paying jobs to more glamorous competitors. She rails at the injustice of badly behaved women being labeled as “good-time girls” while their male counterparts remain blameless. Lastly, she blames mothers for the immaturity of their sons. Women who served their adult sons as one would a small child, “made him so immature in his treatment of women”.
In a recent Time article, Gilbert Cruz characterized Alexander McCall Smith’s books as, “simple, light-hearted mysteries”. Evidently Cruz missed the high moral fiber of the main characters, their intelligent dialogue and profound thoughts sprinkled in and around the plot elements.
Readers be prepared: cracking open a novel by Alexander McCall Smith will not only be enjoyable, but thought provoking at the same time.