April 2009

Alexander McCall Smith

It takes a village
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Where fictional private eyes are concerned, Precious Ramotswe, proprietress of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, makes Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote” look like Spenser for hire.

In the 10 books of this gentlest of detective series, including the latest, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, Mma Ramotswe and her eccentric secretary Mma Makutsi spend far more time investigating “the full cupboard of life” (to borrow the title of book five) than actually solving mysteries. They are, in fact, more often the source than the solvers of intrigue as they kibitz and circumvent the kindly but clueless men in their lives—respectively, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, ace mechanic and owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and Mr. Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop. Though a paying client may eventually receive satisfaction, it sometimes takes a detective to find an actual mystery in these utterly charming village tales.

“The plots are entirely incidental,” admits Alexander McCall Smith from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland. “They are character studies, but with a very strong sense of place.”

It’s a place the author knows well. Born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Smith attended school near the 
Botswana border. After he earned his law degree in Scotland, he returned to Botswana to help establish a new law school at the university there. He went on to become professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, where today he serves as Professor Emeritus. He returns to Botswana every year.

Smith’s fondness for the country and its people shines through in the upbeat, optimistic tone of the series. While some critics praise him for the deceptively simple way he casually reveals human truths, others accuse him of portraying Africa through rose-colored glasses.

“People say that I’m putting forth a saccharine view, which actually isn’t fair,” he says. “What I’m doing is talking about a side of reality that is definitely there but isn’t normally reported. There’s an awful lot of bad news that comes out of Africa, the failure of the political systems and rampant corruption and the resulting suffering of the people. All of that is there, but there is obviously another side.”

To which his legion of readers might add, what’s wrong with gentle escapism? Whether it’s Ballykissangel or the Cheers bar in Boston, don’t we all want to go where everybody knows our name?

“I think that people yearn for a sense of community,” Smith agrees. “The larger the world gets, the larger cities get, I think the more acutely people feel that need.”

It’s the very day-to-day concerns of Mma Ramotswe and associates that help us forget our own. In the delightfully titled Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, Mr. Molofololo, the wealthy owner of the Kalahari Swoopers soccer club, wants the agency to ferret out a slacker on the squad who has been intentionally throwing games. But more pressing matters must take priority: Mma Makutsi’s archrival Violet Sephotho has hired on to sell beds at Double Comfort in hopes of stealing Phuti’s affections, and Mma Ramotswe’s beloved white van, having finally given up the ghost, has been scrapped, then stolen. Clearly, Mr. Molofolo will have to wait.

“We do have a sense of loss with the tiny white van; that mortality is there,” Smith says. “The van is a very important character in these books, and in fact, she will get that van back. There’s going to be a howl of protest from readers, but I think they’ll know that everything is going to work out, that it’s going to be rescued.”

If we are all homesick to some degree for the simpler, slower pace of village life, we likely also miss the common courtesies that accompanied those gentler social interactions. It’s a longing that Smith deftly evokes in the touching formality of Botswana, where even husband and wife refer to each other as Mr. and Mrs.

“Of course, I overstate it, but there is a certain formality in Botswana which is quite striking. People are considerate and formal in many of their dealings with people, which I find very refreshing and nice,” Smith says.

“I think these books have quite a strong sense of loss in them. We’ve lost a certain consideration in our society. Somehow, we all know that we’ve lost some of the courtesies in highly utilitarian societies. We’re in this big rush, and therefore people addressing one another with consideration and courtesy is getting rarer.”
With more than 60 books to his credit, the prolific Mr. Smith won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Still to come this year are new installments of his 44 Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie and Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, as well as continuing chapters in his new serial novel, Corduroy Mansions, for the Telegraph.

In March, HBO aired the two-hour film pilot for the new “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” original series, starring Grammy-winning singer Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as Mma Makutsi. The film was directed by the late Anthony Minghella, the Academy Award-winning director of The English Patient. The series continues on Sunday nights on HBO.

Smith caught “Sopranos” fever relatively recently, but hopes the “No. 1 Ladies” series, on which he serves as a consultant, catches the same zeitgeist.

“It will be unlike anything that anybody has ever seen. It’s HBO going out on a limb and doing something really exciting, as they did with ‘The Sopranos.’ They’ve caught the place and they’ve respected the world of these books,” he says.

In his spare time, Smith—called Sandy by his friends—and his physician-wife Elizabeth perform (on bassoon and horn respectively) with “The Really Terrible Orchestra,” an amateur group he founded against his better judgment. They make their American debut, coincidence or no, this April Fool’s Day at New York’s Town Hall.
“We are seriously bad,” Smith says, with a warped sort of pride. “We are cacophonous. We’ve got a fairly broad repertoire, and it really is bad.”

Jay MacDonald writes from the savannahs of central Texas.

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