DISCOVERING THE NOVELS
I keep being surprised that Alexander McCall Smith is a man. You see, he writes a series of detective novels called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency—and he seems to capture the heart and soul of the main character Precious Ramotswe so well that I keep figuring a woman must have created her. The whole series focuses more on relationships and life than on the mysteries to be solved. However, there is a social conscience as well, as background issues surface periodically such as AIDS, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and women’s rights, adding texture and awareness to the stories. Each novel also takes the readers on a wondrous visit to Botswana in all its complexities.
Each novel centers on solving a mystery or two of some sort. But these mysteries are not anything as grand as a pre-meditated murder, car chases, or acts of espionage. The mysteries solved by Mma Ramotswe tend to be simple problems of everyday people. She is helping people, not just solving crimes. The interactions between the characters unfold at a leisurely pace with patience and courtesy. As Booklist notes in its review, “The brilliance of this series. . . is that what may seem like tiny cases expand into considerations of virtue, love, ambition, greed, and evil.”
In the first novel in the series—The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)—not only does Mma Ramotswe open her agency with an inheritance from her father, but she solves several cases: finds proof about a philandering husband, brings a con man to light, and returns a kidnapped boy to his family. In the seventh book in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006), the detective investigates the irrational fear taking hold of the employees at the Mokolodi Game Reserve and the problematic blood pressure readings being given by a doctor. In the fourteenth book in the series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, Mma Ramotswe investigates the rightful heir to an inheritance and determines who is undermining the success of a newly opened business, and why.
Every novel in the series intertwines several cases that need the detective’s attention against the lives of the primary characters. Mma Ramotswe solves her clients’ problems with patience, a good sense of humor, keen observations and an understanding of human nature. She spends some of her time reading her favorite book, The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen, reflecting on the problems at hand, and drinking a cup of red bush tea. There is enough suspense and complexity in the problems to keep the readers engaged, but the real intrigue is seeing the primary characters interact as their friendships grow.
Grace Makutsi is Mma Ramotswe’s quirky, somewhat critical even prickly secretary who wears large thick glasses and aspires to being an assistant detective. She can be intrusive and outspoken, but she has a heart of gold and a willingness to help. Mma Ramotswe’s neighbor is J. L. B. Matekoni, the best car mechanic in Botswana and owner of Speedy Motors. He is kind, honest, and very soft-spoken, almost shy. He is a generous soul, always willing to help. He treats cars and their owners with respect and can easily read what a car reveals about its owner. Mr. Matekoni’s cautious courtship of Mma Ramotswe unfolds over several novels and helps bring to light some of the sorrow and misery of Mma Ramotswe’s past.
Mr. Makekoni has two apprentices—Charlie and Fanwell—who grow up a little throughout the novels and are featured in several cases throughout the series. An occasional character is Mma Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage. Her skill is talking others into volunteering for various tasks to help the orphans. She is a friend and confidant to both Mma Ramotswe and Mr. Matekoni, and the orphanage grounds become the setting for many scenes throughout the novels. Other characters surface and become part of this extended family of sorts as the novels evolve.
Each character is finely drawn and seems so very true to life. The behaviors and idiosyncrasies of these people remind most readers of people they know. Throughout the series, the characters build their friendships, pulling readers along with them on every risk, insight, and adventure. Finding how their lives unfold through whatever situations erupt in each novel keeps the readers turning page after page. These are characters the readers want to know.
There are two other constant characters in these novels that are closely intertwined and work together to add a unique element to the novels. The first of these unique characters is Botswana itself. Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and lived for a time in Botswana teaching law at the university. His knowledge of the country’s nature, history and culture are infused throughout the novels. His respect for the land, its people, and their culture and traditions is evident. Mma Ramotswe is the main voice that champions Botswana and its virtues.
The other unique character that helps Smith and his character Mma Romatswe explore tradition and its role in modern Botswana is her late father, Obed Romatswe. He lives on in her memories and often comes to mind as she contemplates how to solve a case. His lessons to her as a child and her memories of him bring the culture to life. Most of these memories of her father are grounded in nature. Thus the Botswana countryside—whether a desolate drive to her old village or the sun setting over her garden each evening—becomes an integral character within each novel. The Boston Globe notes that any novel in the series can be “set apart from the genre by the quality of its writing, as well as by its exotic setting.”
The following reflection from The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon shows the importance the author and his main character Mma Romatswe share about Botswana, about its importance and influence on all activity:
“. . . and yet all of us had a view from somewhere, a view of the world from the perspective of who we were, of what had happened to us, of how we thought about things. Her [Mma Romastwe’s] view was the view from Mochudi, where she had been brought up by her late father, that great man, Oded Ramotswe. And his view had been the view from where? The view from Botswana, she decided: the view of the world that seemed essentially and naturally right, because it was a view that understood how things really were and how God must surely have intended them to be when He first made Botswana. She smiled to herself as she savoured the idea that God had looked at the world, seen a wide stretch of land, and had said, This shall be Botswana. He had given it the Kalahari; He had given it the good land along the eastern border, and had added, for good measure, the Makadikadi Salt Pans.”
More than the symbolic aspect of Botswana in the novels, everyday nature is also a constant reminder of the world the characters live in and react to. The desolate roads, the waiting for rain to end the long dry summers, the cattle of the past and the present in fields and streets, the need to be on the lookout for wild animals crossing one’s path especially snakes, the personal garden where husband and wife can sit together—all these elements of nature are a constant in the novels. More than setting a scene, nature becomes part of the constant, cyclical, certainty of the Botswana way of life that is captured in these novels. In the eighth novel, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007), this awareness of nature is captured:
“They were just coming to the end of winter now, and there were signs of the return of warmth, but the mornings and the evenings could still be bitterly cold, as this particular morning was. Cold air, great invisible clouds of it, would sweep up from the south-east, from the distant Drakensberg Mountains and from the southern oceans beyond; air that seemed to love rolling over the wide spaces of Botswana, cold air under a high sun.
“Once in the kitchen, with a blanket wrapped about her waist, Mma Ramotswe switched on Radio Botswana in time for the opening chorus of the national anthem and the recording of cattle bells with which the radio started the day. This was a constant in her life, something that she remembered from her childhood, listening to the radio from her sleeping mat while the woman who looked after her started the fire that would cook breakfast for Precious and her father, Obed Ramotswe. It was one of the cherished things of her childhood, that memory; as was the mental picture that she had of Mochudi (her home village) as it then was, of the view from the National School up on the hill; of the paths that wound through the bush this way and that but which had a destination known only to the small scurrying animals that used them. These were things that would stay with her forever, she thought, and which would always be there, no matter how bustling and thriving Gaborone might become. This was the soul of her country; somewhere there, in that land of red earth, of green acacia, of cattle bells, was the soul of her country.”
If you have not read any of the novels in this series yet, they are worth your time and effort. The first book in the series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, was published in 1998. The Plain Dealer praised it as “One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years.” That review can be applied to any of the fifteen books in the series. Other reviews capture the heart of the series as well. The New York Times Book Review concludes, “Smith’s big-hearted Botswana stories. . . [allow] his readers to escape into a world of simple, picturesque pleasures and upstanding virtues.” The Daily Mail (London) declares the series “Wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive. . . [with] wit worthy of Jane Austen.” There is good reason for the novels to have achieved international acclaim.
AN HBO FILM ADAPTATION
You might also want to watch The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seven-episode Original Series created by HBO in 2008. This film version of many of the novels is well done as it captures the heart and soul of the characters and the location. The casting and acting are impressive; the characters come alive for me just as I envisioned them. Jill Scott, especially, brings Mma Ramostwse to life as a living breathing character of traditional build and proud of it. She is quick to smile and courteous to a fault, as is tradition in Botswana. US Weekly gave the series Four Stars. Entertainment Weekly concluded it was “Feel-Good Television.”
One of my favorite cases from the book series is told in the second novel, The Tears of the Giraffe (2000), and it was included in the fourth episode of the HBO series called “The Boy with an African Heart.” This case involves the disappearance of a young American years ago in the Botswana plains. CCH Pounder beautifully plays the American mother visiting this country her son loved so much, trying to discover his fate. The interaction between mother, detective and landscape is compelling. This one case/novel/episode captures the essence of the entire series.
Overall, the film adaptation is not 100% faithful to the novels’ characters and cases, but it is true to the essence of the written series as it captures the novels’ main action and characters. The main difference is the inclusion of a new secondary character, a gay hairdresser named BJ whose shop is next door to the detective agency. He is a delight and fits right in with the intent and feeling of the series. Other changes are minor as might be expected moving print to visual media. Perhaps the most impressive element of the HBO series is that it is filmed entirely on location in Botswana. The color, the vibrancy, the openness of Botswana truly come alive as the stories unfold in this wonderful locale.
This following video is called Making of HBO’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and it shows the spark and heart of the characters and the stories. Maybe it will entice you to give the novels a try. Or at least to watch the HBO series. Enjoy!
This second video is called the Gem of Botswana. It shows aspects of the country and culture that are captured in the books and the film series. It shows how compelling Botswana is as the locale and the heart of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I would love to visit Botswana some day and enjoy a cup of red bush tree under the shade of an acacia tree. In some ways, it would feel like going to visit a good friend.
If you have read or seen any of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, what do you think? If not, I encourage you to give the novels or the HBO series a try. You’ll be transported to Botswana and meet some fascinating characters. You might want to slow down, appreciate life and nature around you, and enjoy a cup of red bush tea while you’re at it.
What books or film adaptations can you suggest? There is at least another month left of summer!
THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY NOVELS IN ORDER (I love the titles!)
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Blue Shoes and Happiness
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
The Miracle at Speedy Motors
The Time for the Traditionally Built
The Double Comfort Safari Club
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe