A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My mother passed this book to me after a friend recommended it to her. I admit I was wary about reading The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as I’d heard there was some controversy about the Botswana-based novel, and I remember Susan Hill being informed that the book had patronising and possibly racist undertones. And yet this series has attracted millions of fans worldwide, and is particularly popular in the U.S and Botswana itself. So I thought I would give it my new Vulpes Libris reading test: if I wanted to continue reading after the first chapter then it had passed the first hurdle and I would go on with it, and if I was still gripped after a hundred pages I would read it to the end. I finished reading The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in a couple of days – I could barely put it down.
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is not big on plot, but it is a page-turner, thanks to the glorious character of Precious Ramotswe, the detective of the title. After Precious’s elderly father dies, she finds herself in possession of a fair inheritance and the opportunity to start a business. Being something of an Agatha Christie fan, Precious decides that what her town really needs isn’t another butcher but is, in fact, a top notch private detective, and off she goes, investigating mysteries ranging from small scale frauds to missing persons cases. Precious has a fairly matter-of-fact attitude to her clients and to mystery-solving in general:
The wives of missing men are all the same, thought Mma Ramotswe. At first they feel anxiety, and are convinced that something dreadful has happened. Then doubt begins to creep in, and they wonder whether he’s gone off with another woman (which he usually has), and then finally they become angry. At the anger stage, most of them don’t want him back any more, even if he’s found. They just want to have a good chance to shout at him.
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency isn’t what some might call a work of great insight or technical genius, but I don’t think it intends to be. It’s an upbeat, possibly rose-tinted view of life in Botswana, with a charming and optimistic main character. Perhaps decades of postmodern, gloomy tales have left some readers yearning for a simple life-affirming story, told from the point of view of a woman with a strong moral code. In that sense, I suppose The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is in the tradition of the cosy and comforting fireside yarn. I feel perturbed saying that I enjoyed a book that some readers have found patronising and racist, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a pleasure to read a novel that was set in an interesting country, with a main character that I adored (Precious reminded me very much of my mother). For me, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was the literary equivalent of watching my beloved American television dramas: not entirely realistic, perhaps, but offering pure escapism played out in unfamiliar surroundings.
For the TLS interview with Alexander McCall Smith, which provides a little more information about the novel’s creation and its creator, click here.
Abacus. £7.99. 256 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0349116754