Vulpes Libris

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.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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

6 comments on “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. marygm
    July 2, 2008

    I read this too, Lisa and thought exactly the same as you. It’s a pleasant, fun, uplifting read that reminded me that are good people in the world and good things do happen too.
    I heard as well about the charges of condescension if not actual racism but I didn’t feel that the author was being either racist or mysogynistic. I’d be interested to hear what someone from Botswana thinks though.

  2. Lisa
    July 3, 2008

    Me too. There were some interesting comments on the piece on Susan Hill’s blog. A friend pointed out to me that perhaps one reason some people in Botswana like this series of books is because they might be good for tourism, but I don’t know.

    “reminded me that are good people in the world and good things do happen too.”

    Yes, I liked that about it too.

  3. Jackie
    July 3, 2008

    Ooooh, a cozy mystery, just my cup of tea. This series is hugely popular here in the U.S., in fact the latest is on the best seller list now. I keep meaning to start on them, but cannot find them in order at the library. Eventually I’ll get to them!

  4. Cecile McGee
    September 17, 2008

    I love all the characters in The Nr. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books. Of course, everyong loves Precious. Her stories tell me about a lady that lives far away from me, but they also tell me that she thinks about like all the rest of us wherever we are. This author tells me that we all use whatever is at hand and the circumstances to lead our daily lives. I look forward to every book that comes out about Precious, and I put off reading whatever the last book is because I know it will be a while before we get another. Boogie on Mr. Smith and Precious. You have a lot of people all over who love you. Let us please not get politics, prejudices, etc., mixed up even in our pleasure. Color is not an issue in this woman who lives her life and lets me read about it.

  5. Pingback: Cleveland Mma Ramotswe | Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Training Tips

  6. hopewellslibraryoflife
    February 9, 2017

    I love the audios of this series–the narrator Lisette LeCat is spot-on with accent. He gets the “feel” of the place right. I lived not too far off in Malawi so things ring true. Are their prejudices in the book–that’s up to the reader. I avidly listen to each one as it comes out.

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