The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Gabarone, Botswana, takes on a new client in Precious and Grace. True to form, Alexander McCall Smith’s fine process of “getting there” wins out over shootouts and car chases any old day, and his asides—often important clues in traditional whodunits—are, well, just asides.
The series reads like a pleasantly low-key moral tale. It’s all pretty much down to the ruminations of Mma Ramotswe, No. 1’s founder and owner, who has commandeered the series through 17 leisurely installments. “Commandeered” is a bit strong, though. Mma Ramotswe (whose name is Precious, though you’ll seldom hear it) can teach us a lot about the ways of kindly souls and about the sort of real forgiveness that few of us can muster. She’s an acute observer of all around her, and like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, her rural country setting never keeps her from spotting the many foibles displayed by her fellows and making important connections about human nature that serve her well.
Sometimes her refusal to judge can get in Mma Ramotswe’s way, even when she tries to hold back the tongue of her business assistant and close friend, Mma Makutsi (whose name is Grace, though it’s not often bandied about). Mma Makutsi’s wayward opinions, however, can sometimes be effectively quelled by the frequent cups of tea dispensed in the No. 1 office. And since everything at the agency proceeds on Botswana time—that is to say, at a steady but hardly rapid pace—there’s ample time to smooth over the wrinkles of human disagreement.
When Susan, a young Canadian woman, appeals for the agency’s help in uncovering pieces of her long-forgotten early childhood in Botswana, Mma Makutsi is quick to jump to conclusions about her motives, while Mma Ramotswe holds back judgment to read between the lines, piecing the reasons together from the woman’s unhappy past. The search for Susan’s old home is nicely punctuated with evocative portraits of the many people in Mma Ramotswe’s rich life: her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni; her sometime assistants, Charlie and Mr. Polopetsi (he of the high-flying but often-plummeting schemes); and of course the outspoken Grace herself.
Readers seeking hair-trigger action thrills will wish to steer clear of the Ladies’ Detective Agency, where, fortunately for the rest of us, the literary payoff is in an entirely different coinage.