The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is one of my favorite comfort reads. The unhurried, peaceful nature of these stories makes you want to curl up on a comfy chair and drink a glass of bush tea. Never had bush tea? Well, once you meet Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi, you’ll know all about it.
By the way, “Mma” is the term used to address women in Botswana, Africa. For example, down here in Alabama, it is a sign of respect when young people call me Miss Holly. In Botswana, I would be called Mma Holly.
What? You have never heard of an African detective? Well, then you are certainly in for a delightful adventure when you meet Precious Ramotswe. She is not only precious in nature, but that is also her real name.
The character of Precious Ramotswe was created by author Alexander McCall Smith, who obviously has an ongoing love affair with Botswana. After seeing Botswana’s land, culture, and people through the eyes of Precious, I must admit it is a place I would like to see for myself.
But if you can’t make the trip, then read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and you can enjoy the adventure without even leaving your cozy chair.
Several things lift this series above the usual book on the mystery aisle. The style is simple, even sparse, and the structure rather loose, but Smith’s detective, Precious Ramotswe, is charming and clever — a worthy successor to the detectives of Agatha Christie, whom she repeatedly cites as her inspiration.
Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Precious is a shrewd observer of the people and society around her, and she has an ability to skillfully navigate the different cultures and social levels in her community.
The first book in the series isn’t structured like a traditional mystery novel. It begins with Ramotswe on a case, then the next chapter is the first-person story of her father. Successive chapters over the next few dozen pages tells of her life before she started the agency. Her life before the agency was not pleasant — including a brief and abusive marriage — but we quickly learn that Ramotswe is a strong woman. She is not only ample of body, but also abundant in resilience, wisdom, and spirit. Throughout the book, the author promotes feminism and anti-colonialism, and you have no doubt that Precious can adequately back up those beliefs.
Since it is the story of a detective agency, there are various ongoing cases, although there is one overarching mystery, which Precious solves in the end. This was a quick read. It took me around three hours, and I enjoyed the entire journey.
Unfortunately, many people are under the impression that Alexander McCall Smith books are strictly for middle-aged women. I do not believe this is the case and think junior high students and all the way up will be charmed by these characters. These books are also not just a tale of mystery, but also contain wonderful sprinklings of humanity and the small pleasures of life, such as pumpkin soup and acts of kindness, which make it good to be alive. I dare anyone who is feeling down to read one of these books, for I firmly believe you can’t help but feel a little more hopeful once you have seen life through the eyes of Precious and her friends.
And that brings up another thing I like about these books. These people are not Pollyanna’s and they are not perfect. They are a combination of good and bad and they all struggle to get along in the best way possible when they stumble into murder mysteries, financial difficulties and their neighbors’ secrets. They don’t just walk away from each other either. For example, in the third book, Morality for Beautiful Girls, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, Ramotswe’s darling fiancé, becomes depressed. It comes over him very gradually and the people who love him become increasingly concerned. I felt myself becoming drawn in and wanting him to feel better. You end up caring about these characters as if they were family.
If you are not a reader, then rent the HBO DVD series of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Actress Jill Smith is perfect as Precious Ramotswe.
I will leave you with a few facts about the author, also a charming, intelligent man. Alexander McCall Smith, the author of more than 50 books, was born in Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe, where his father worked as a public prosecutor. He immigrated to Scotland, and earned his PhD in law at the University of Edinburgh. While he taught at Queen’s University Belfast, he won a literary competition. In 1981, he returned to Africa to co-found and teach law at the University of Botswana. At that time, he co-wrote what is currently the only book on the country’s legal system. He now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a location close to where authors J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson reside. Smith is now the Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Law and holds honorary doctorates from 12 universities. He is also a former member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO. Besides his literary pursuits, he’s an amateur bassoonist and helped found Botswana’s first center for opera training.
Have you read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s other books? Do you have a favorite?
Who is Holly Lewitas?
Holly Lewitas is the author of the Spunky Murder Mystery Series — cozy mysteries for dog and cat lovers. Books include: The Nose Knows, The Nose Sees All and An Army of Noses. You are invited to connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.
Image: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Book 1) book cover
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