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The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: A Review


First OneI 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.”

Blue ShoesIn 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.

authorThere 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.”

Minor AdjustmentThe 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.”

Good HusbandMore 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.


Jill ScottHBO Film SeriesYou 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.”

TearsOne 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

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


NO REST FOR THE DEAD: One Mystery, Many Authors

I always enjoy a good murder mystery, especially in the summer when I can lounge at the beach or curl up on the couch inside with the air conditioning.  These novels—although maybe not great literature—offer strong characters, intriguing plot twists, and exciting settings. The suspense of the mystery or thriller keeps me engaged, but the plots are not so intricate or themes so profound that I cannot be interrupted and keep continuity.  If I doze off while reading, no problem.  I can pick right back up again!

If I find a mystery author I like, I go back over and over.  Some of my go-to authors include Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series, Sue Graftson’s alphabet mystery series, and James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series.  But I am always open for a good mystery to read, a new author to explore.

no rest for the deadA few weeks ago I was intrigued by a new title—No Rest for the Dead—because of its author.  I actually should say authors, plural.  What caught my eye about this tome was that it was a group project, written by 26 different mystery writers.  You know the concept of a progressive dinner?  Start a meal in one place and move on to another location for the next course?  That is how this book was created, a progressive draft where different authors wrote different chapters.

David Baldacci (author of King & Maxwell series) wrote the introduction to this collective endeavor and explained what a magnificent feat this joint project really was:This is a rare thing indeed because mystery writers are notoriously reclusive, paranoid, and unfriendly folks when it comes to their work. . . .  While they each deliver their own signature brand of storytelling to the novel, it is startling how these writers. . . have woven a yarn that seems to be the product of one mind, one imagination (albeit schizophrenic).”

And Baldacci was right:  No Rest for the Dead is an impressive collaboration. I was intrigued by the authors themselves, some of whom I had read before and enjoyed.  All are successful in their own ways, most having been on the NY Times Bestsellers List many times.  The 26 authors who worked together to create this murder mystery are listed below basically in order of the appearance of their contributions in the novel.  I have added a little info about the couple of authors that I have read before and liked:

  • Andrew F. Gulli
  • Jonathon Santlofer
  • Jeff Lindsay (Dexter series that was inspiration for Dexter TV show)
  • Alexander McCall Smith (The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and other series).
  • Raymond Khoury
  • Sandra Brown
  • Faye Kellerman
  • Kathy Reichs (Temperance Brennan series, basis for Bones TV show)
  • John Lescroart
  • T. Jefferson Parker
  • Lori Armstrong
  • Matthew Pearl
  • Michael Palmer
  • J. A. Jance
  • Gayle Kynds
  • R. L. Stine (Goosbumps series for kids)
  • Marcia Talley
  • Thomas Cook
  • Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series)
  • Peter James
  • Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles series, basis for TV show)
  • Lisa Scottoline
  • Phillip Margolin
  • Jeffrey Deaver
  • Jeff Abbott
  • Marcus Sakey

I was also intrigued by No Rest for the Dead because of what prompted this extreme collaboration.  The idea of an anthology of mystery short stories that would generate income for cancer charities originated with Andrew J. Gulli, managing editor of Strand, the number one magazine for mystery and short story writers.  A friend of his, now late, suggested making the project a novel with many authors as a better way to entice readers.  That change helped the idea coalesce, and soon authors were coming on board for the project.  Gulli and his sister Lamia Gulli edited this jointly written novel. Other than payments to authors all proceeds are going to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  According to LLS, 148 people die from blood cancer every day.  Helping cancer research is a great cause!

Of course, the book will only sell and raise money for LLS if No Rest for the Dead is a good novel.  Fortunately, it is.  As the novel opens, the readers are aware that the woman convicted of killing her husband was put to death for his murder ten years ago.  But now, the main detective who helped convict her feels he was wrong and that an innocent woman was killed.  This former police detective, Jon Nunn, has been obsessed for the past decade with trying to find the truth.  This opening sets up a great dynamic, generating interest and suspense in finding the truth.

The plot unfolds in a two-part structure.  After the opening setup, the readers are taken back in time to just before the murder, so all the suspects and their actions can be clarified.  The murder victim is seen as arrogant and condescending, and many people have motive to kill him.  I don’t want to say that I cheered over the fact that he had been bumped off, but I was not very sad.  Then the readers are returned to the present when all these players are being brought together on the 10th anniversary of the convicted murderer’s death.  Current intrigue shows that someone is working to thwart the detective’s ongoing investigation to find out the truth.  As a reader, I was quickly committed to the plot, wanting desperately to know the truth about this murder.

Overall, No Rest for the Dead is a fun summer read. If you like murder mysteries, you will not be disappointed.  The characters are engaging, the action is compelling, and the final resolution offers a surprise twist.  I even stayed up one night to read just one more chapter. And then another.  But this mystery is also a good read for those who value the art of writing itself.  I was impressed by the smooth transition from one chapter to the next as new authors picked up the story and carried it forward.  The varying writing styles melded together well.  In fact, I was able to forget that so many different voices were penning this cohesive presentation.   I echo Baldacci’s comment on the success of this writing experiment:  “It’s hard what these writers have done. Give them their due.”

My final analysis?  Give it a try!  If you end up not liking No Rest for the Dead, most of your $10 will have gone to LLS. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


“Novels are written word by word. If you can write a word, and then another word, you can write a novel—assuming your novel will be two words long. Here’s a two-word romance novel: I do. It’s also a murder mystery.”   Jarod Kintz

“Murder is easy, if no one suspects you.”  Agatha Christie

“The lady in the liquor store sold me a fifth of whiskey and the landlord’s name without taking her eyes off the book she was reading.”  Andrew Cotto

“The sweetest smiles hold the darkest secrets. . . “   Sara Shepard

“You don’t just spontaneously develop a fatal head wound.”  Detective Vega, CSI

“I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest.”  Agatha Christie

 “One must never set up a murder.  They just happen unexpectedly, as in life.”  Alfred Hitchcock

“There are 4 kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.”  Ambrose Bierce

“Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long.”   William Shakespeare

“What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.”  P. D. James


What are your best summer reads? 

If you read murder mysteries, share some favorite authors!

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