Book Review of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith



First published in 1998, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith set the stage for a total of 18 novels (so far) which are collectively known by the name of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. This review is only for the first book, which tells the story of how Mma Precious Ramotswe came to become the first female private detective in Botswana, a country where many people still believe that women are inferior to men, and the challenges she faces to get clients before she can even try her hand at tackling cases.

Characters

This first book is very much focused on the character of Precious Ramotswe, who is aged 34 at the start of the novel, so she is old enough to have had quite a bit of experience of life, while still being fairly young. Her outlook and personality shows a great respect and love for Botswanan tradition, but she has a very modern outlook on the role of women in society and refuses to allow herself to be pulled down by the blatant chauvinism which is shown to be entrenched in Botswanan society. Although gentle, she can be assertive when she needs to and is very astute in her detective work and her dealings with people in general, although she is always scrupulously ethical.

The other major character is Mr JLB Matekon, who is ten years older than Mma Ramotswe and who has known her since she was young. He is a very skilled mechanic but can struggle to express himself in words. Like Mma Ramotswe his outlook on life is rooted in Botswanan tradition but it is also fairly modern, not remotely sexist and very supportive of Mma Ramotswe.

Although Obed Ramotswe, the father of Mma Ramotswe, is dead at the start of the book, he features frequently in flashbacks and is clearly never far from Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts.

A character called Mma Grace Makutsi makes her first appearance in this novel, but is only a minor character here. She becomes much more important in later books.

Setting

The main setting of the book is Botswana, but South Africa also features and while its geographic landscape barely gets a mention, there are evocative descriptions of life in its mines as this was where Obed Ramotswe worked to earn the money he needed to set himself up decently in Botswana and which later allowed him to leave a decent legacy for Mma Ramotswe.

Plot

This novel is really a collection of short stories, loosely bound together. The detective element probably takes up about two thirds of it and consists of 8 cases of varying complexity and duration, some of which Mma Ramotswe investigates concurrently. The other third of the book covers the life stories of Mma Ramotswe and her father Obed Ramotswe. These teach the reader a lot about the history of the southern part of Africa and how life there could be both brutal and beautiful.
Overall impression

This is definitely a book for those who enjoy their crime fiction on the gentler side, in fact three of the 8 cases Mma Ramotswe investigates don’t have anything to do with crime at all and out of the other 5 only one involves any sort of violence and this is implied rather than described. There is only one murder in the book, which occurs before Mma Ramotswe is born and about which she (and the reader) have very limited detail, hence she does not investigate it. The incident itself is over quickly and described briefly, its repercussions are far more important to the story.

Although the detective cases are on the gentle side, there are some interesting twists and at least one unexpected sucker punch. Overall, however, this is mainly a novel about people and their relationships with each other, with Africa and with the world in general and as such it’s a book which can be read and read again, even if you remember the cases perfectly. Most of the characters portrayed in this novel are decent and likeable overall, or if they are not there are at least extenuating circumstances, there are very few real villains here. In the absence of blood and guts and gore and bitter fights between characters, most of the interest and tension in this novel, comes through the conflict between the old Africa and the new. For example, the case of Happy Bapetsi, who lost her daddy, found him and then lost him again, highlights how the Botswanan tradition of caring for relatives can be abused by modern fraudsters in an age where people move about much more than they ever used to. Likewise the case of Mr Patel, who thinks his daughter has an unauthorized boyfriend, shows how different generations can easily come into conflict with each other. While Mr Patel clearly has his faults, he is genuinely concerned for his daughter and the case ends happily with Mma Ramotswe laying the foundations for a more trusting relationship between them. Then there is the case of Hector Lepodise who is on the receiving end of a false compensation claim by a former employee. Mma Ramotswe solves the case, but discovers that the man wanted the money to support his family and so does not inform the police of the matter.

The most complex case in the book is one which Mma Ramotswe agrees to investigate for free as she feels compelled to offer what assistance she can to the family of a boy who has gone missing. She links the disappearance of the boy with the finding of human bones used for “muti” (a form of witchcraft), but although her logic and detective work are up to their usual high standard, her fear that the boy is dead turns out to be untrue and the case has a happy ending (unlike the real-life incident on which it is based).

In short

This is a nice easy read which offers a great insight into life in southern Africa and while the lifestyle may be unique and people are all individual, in some ways, people are the same the world over and so it’s really the engaging characters which make this book so endearing and enduring.


Verdict - Definitely one to keep and read again


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