A new book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series is always an unbridled treat for me. I love the books and have all of them, and unlike the Harry Potter series which I also love, these are still coming! Set in Botswana and narrated by a female protagonist—the indomitable Mma Ramotswe, who is the proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency—the books capture the feel of Africa and the skin of the character so completely, that it’s hard to believe that they are written by a Scottish man. Alexander McCall Smith was born in Africa in what is now known as Zimbabwe, so he is certainly familiar with the place, but still, it takes exceptional talent to be able to immerse the reader in the character and the setting so completely.
Each book in the series—the first of which was published in 2003—has one or two main cases and a few side cases. Unlike typical detective stories that are usually fast-paced and action-packed, the focus in these books is more on the people and their lives, their relationships with each other, and the sights and sounds of Botswana. The stories unfold at a very leisurely pace, and in most of them, there is no “mystery” as such to be solved, but instead, “problems” to be resolved.
In Precious and Grace, the main case is that of a young Canadian woman who was born and spent her early childhood in Botswana, and after many years of living in Canada and a failed relationship, has come to Botswana to rediscover and reconnect with her roots. She approaches the agency to help with this, and by the end of the book, Mma Ramotswe does manage to dig out her past, including where she grew up and the nanny who looked after her. However, it turns that rediscovering the past is not as fulfilling as she had hoped. In the course of this main investigation, Mma Ramotswe also helps Mr. Polopetsi, an occasional assistant at the agency, to get out of a pyramid scheme he has unwittingly been tricked into. There’s also a stray dog that Fanwell, a junior mechanic at the garage next door, rescued that has become very attached to him—there’s the issue of what to do with him. This many not be a “case” in a traditional detective book, but it is very much in line with the human issues that Mma Ramotswe concerns herself with.
Precious and Grace has the usual cast of lovable characters who have been there since the first book: Mma (Precious) Ramotswe, who set up the agency—which is the only ladies detective agency in Botswana—and lives by a “how-to” book by an American detective, from which she quotes liberally; Mma (Grace) Makutski, her prickly assistant, who has kept promoting herself until she is now the co-director of the agency; Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe’s husband and the owner of the garage next door, who knows cars inside out and probably dreams of engines in his sleep; Charlie, a former apprentice in the garage who is now working in the detective agency, and hasn’t gotten very far in life as he is mostly thinking of girls; Fanwell, who, as mentioned earlier, works in the garage under Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and is a little more serious about life than Charlie; and Mma Potokwane, a close friend of Mma Ramotswe who runs an orphan farm and who is famous for serving the best fruit cake to which Mma Ramotswe always helps herself liberally whenever she visits her to talk about her cases and life in general.
Although Precious and Grace is the 17th book in the series, the quality has not flagged a bit, and it is every bit as enjoyable and entertaining as the first book. And this is true of all the books in the series. Not only do they capture the essence of Botswana so completely that you feel you are living and breathing it, but they are also among the most delightfully funny books I have read, with so many laugh-out-loud moments which I can’t but help reading out to those around me. And the humor is always intelligent, always good-natured, and never crass. For instance, in response to a government official (whom Mma Ramotswe has approached for some information) who complains about the many injustices of being a junior staff member, Mma Ramotswe sympathizes with him and then thinks that this would never happen to Mma Makutski. “If you were Mma Makutski, you simply promoted yourself regularly until you ended up as junior co-director, of whatever her current position was— Mma Ramotswe had rather lost track of Mma Makutski stellar ascent.”
The book is sprinkled with such witticisms throughout. Another constant source of humor is the fact that Mma Ramotswe is “traditionally built” and sees this as a source of pride rather than shame. She has no compunction about indulging in food—whether it is stew, or fat cakes (similar to our doughnuts), or the delicious fruit cake that Mma Potokwane (who is also traditionally built) always seems to have on hand at the orphan farm. Also, when it comes to hiring a new housemother for the orphan farm, of all the qualified applicants, Mma Potokwane makes the final selection in favor of the woman who is traditionally built, because she feels that “the most traditionally built lady would be the happiest, and would therefore make the children happy—they would love her and she would have the most acreage, so to say, for them to climb on, and her lap would be big enough for many children to sit on at the same time.” That’s the most compelling justification of being plump that I’ve ever heard of!
It’s a testament to how enjoyable all the books in No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series are that I’m always sad to reach the end—I wish they would last forever. It’s not a feeling adults have much of anymore, and I am in awe of a writer who can still make us feel this way.
Precious and Grace (Book 17 of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publication Date: October 2016
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.