In a township in Botswana, an man lies dying of a malignancy he contracted through working in the mines in his earlier years. He has put aside money, husbanded it well, invested in cows equally well-husbanded, and now he is about to pass it all on to his daughter so she can open a small shop. She proudly tells him she intends opening a detective agency. The man is surprised, is about to say something – but then he is gone, and so the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is born.
Mma Ramotswe is its owner. She is a plump woman, a pragmatic woman, a lover of life and the land in which she lives. She is cheerful in the face of the problems that confront her, ever-optimistic, innocent without being naive. It is, all in all, pleasant to be in her company.
This is an amiable work, a quaint work that drifts whimsically around the life of Mma Ramotswe and the nation of Botswana. In its drifting it is unpredictable. We are given Mma Ramotswe’s father’s experiences as a miner first-hand in an intrusion that doesn’t intrude because there is no pattern to the work. It goes where it pleases in short tales, sometimes even brief anecdotes which seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Through it all relationships build, the Detective Agency does well for itself and things progress, but there is no real plot, just as life has no real plot. There is no story arc in the day-to-day, only a scatter of events, and yet somehow we make progress in life in much the same way this book progresses.
The staple fare of the agency is the day-to-day – a cheating husband, a lost dog – but sometimes something more challenging comes along and Mma Ramotswe deals with such things with anxious competence, never failing. That serves a little to detract from the realism, but it’s a retrospective realisation more than something which feels uncomfortable while reading.
For all its innocence there is a darkness here, too. The man Mma Ramotswe’s father sees murdered in cold blood in the mines. The witch doctor who kidnaps children. Mma Ramotswe is not so innocent that, when a man tries to wave her down at the roadside in the middle of the night, she stops to pick him up. Her innocence and cheerfulness transcend some of the more grim realities around her but it does not deny their existence, and somehow her innocence is to the fore. We can almost forget the ugliness of what is sometimes described.
An amiable read, a pleasant character study, it can at times be too amiable, too pleasant, too inconsequential. In its exploration of blind alleys lies the work’s strength, but some of those alleys are a little too featureless, and one or two could be taken off the map and not be missed. There are, too, just a few too many happy endings. Sometimes, realism is lost when things turn out quite so well, quite so often. The result is that, though I am sure I will happily visit Mma Ramotswe again in Alexander McCall Smith’s later works that feature her, perhaps not soon. That would feel like eating one too many cream cakes, and I’d fear feeling just a little sickly at the end of it.
But, to be fair, only a little. This is a work worth recommending, an interlude in Mma Ramotswe’s beloved Botswana, a pleasant land with thorn trees; as good a metaphor for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as any I can imagine.