brief return to modern detectives: Andrew McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe

As a switch from Golden Age detectives, I jumped back to a current series, Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series. This is another series suggested to me by the same patron who suggested Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series1, and once again he was right; I read the first two as my ‘assignment’ and liked them so much that I zipped through the third2.

For those not familiar with the series, they’re set in Botswana, and the primary detective is a Motswana woman named Precious Ramotswe who is the first female private investigator in the country3. She sets up in business with the proceeds of the sale of her father’s estate after his death from miners’ lung–being Botswana, his property consists of a herd of prime beef cattle. In the beginning, she has no particular training but has a very strong sense of intuition and enough common sense and knowledge of the country and culture that she’s able to solve the crimes set her…though sensibly does refuse the ones she knows to be beyond her skills at the time. Mma Ramotswe is quite capable of living on her own, indeed enjoys it having been through a disastrous first marriage, but as the series progresses she develops a relationship with a nearby mechanic, Mr J.L.B Matekoni. In the beginning, her cases consist mainly of domestic issues–spouses who’re stepping out with someone other than the person they’re married to, missing people–insurance fraud and identity switching.

They’re at the languid end of the fiction spectrum; I’d call them character and culture driven ‘locale pieces’ (as opposed to period pieces), with enough of a leavening of investigation to place them into the mystery genre. They’re a bit simplistic in tone–McCall Smith says flat out that Mma Makutsi is a good secretary but not attractive enough to get good jobs, rather than showing us the same–but then that’s all the better for those of us who don’t like the ickier indepth police procedural style. I’ve seen some accusations of…not racism but rather condescension towards the main characters; I can see how that got started as the author’s a white man living in Scotland, but given that he grew up in what’s now Zimbabwe and worked at the University of Botswana, I’m willing to cut him some slack here. My impression was more that he wanted to create a detective of a culture he knew reasonably well, but about which no one had previously written. Kudos to him for that! Certainly I appreciate the women in the series as resolute complete human beings in their own right.

For me, these are quick light reads that don’t require much attention, though in fairness the two Ngaio Marsh mysteries weren’t much more difficult. Just longer. Admittedly, I do read much more quickly than…well, pretty much everyone I know…but the fact that I went through three of these in a day with time left over to start on Allingham’s Campion series should give an indication of the general complexity of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. Or rather, lack of it. This should not be construed as a criticism, mind, as I did get through three before coming up for breath, but rather that readers should look elsewhere for an indepth cultural analysis or thought provoking complex mystery. For those who DO like ‘popcorn’ mysteries, thankfully McCall Smith’s not only written several more in this series, but started two others: the Sunday Philosophy Club and the 44 Scotland Street series. Again, I appreciate the author’s willingness to take a break from one series, whether or not this produces another, as so many authors leave me thinking “Shoulda stopped several books ago!”

1the ‘alphabet’ series for those who don’t recall primary detectives
2The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe and Morality for Beautiful Girls
3no idea how much is true and how much artistic license


2 thoughts on “brief return to modern detectives: Andrew McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe

  1. This series is also beautifully performed in audio by Lisette Lecat. As you say, the stories are simple and charming and Lecat’s superb performance really brings them to life. I can easily listen while doing other tasks that don’t require close attention. I’ve fallen a bit behind and need to catch up with the most recent 2 or 3 in the series. I tried the Sunday Philosophy Club and didn’t like it as well, but I may give book 2 a try just to see if it gets any better.

  2. I can see them being enjoyable as an audiobook; they’ve got enough dialogue and there’s a distinct spoken rhythm to the books. Given that much of the charm of this series was the setting, I’m not sure whether I’d like McCall Smith’s other two series. Something to keep in mind for other readers, though that does come back to the question at the heart of all readers advisory:why did you like the book?

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