Fiction Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (1998)

The book I have chosen to review is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a mystery novel by Alexander McCall Smith.

This is the first novel of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall Smith. The series is set in Gaborone, Botswana, and follows the adventures of the clever and compassionate Mma Precious Ramotswe (Mma is a title of respect, similar to “Ms.” or “Mrs.” in Setswana). Mma Ramotswe opens the first detective agency run by a woman in Botswana, and her clients come to her with all sorts of problems: “She was consulted about missing husbands, about the creditworthiness of potential business partners, and about suspected fraud by employees. In almost every case, she was able to come up with at least some information for the client” (Smith 1).

Throughout the novel, there is a steady stream of small mysteries that Mma Ramotswe solves along the way, but in the foreground is the mystery of a missing boy, possibly a murder. Mma Ramotswe pays special attention to this case because she fears a connection between the boy and a human bone found in the glove compartment of her (soon-to-be-more-than-) friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s car. The boy’s disappearance and his family’s distress also remind her of her own miscarriage, so Mma Ramotswe and her new newly hired assistant/receptionist Mma Grace Makutsi embark upon this case with unswerving determination.

I enjoy “The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series because it is remarkably different from “usual” mystery fiction. Rather than hard-boiled or classic British detective fiction, Smith’s stories fall under a subgenre of anthropological fiction, where the surrounding culture plays an important role in the story. There is less focus on sensationalism, and less violence. The stories serve more as morality tales than hardcore mysteries. The pace of the story is slower, which allows the reader to take in the peaceful and quaint culture of Botswana, relayed through Mma Ramotswe’s charming affection for her country. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so thoroughly is that Mma Ramotswe is an incredibly likeable character. She is ingenious, and brave, and moves through the male-dominated culture with grace and charisma. Her dry humor and subtle humor are very easy to read. Some of her client’s problems may seem mundane, especially compared to the hard, gritty mysteries of hard-boiled or British classic fiction, but Smith’s writing skillfully conveys the importance of the issue to the clients, which transfers through Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts into the reader’s conscious. I would recommend this book to a reader who enjoys puzzles, logic, and conundrums, but would like a break from intense or fast die-hard murder mysteries.

This is a quotation from one of the smaller mysteries Mma Ramotswe solved:

Mma Ramotswe picked up the nurse’s uniform from her friend Sister Gogwe. It was a bit tight, especially round the arms, as Sister Gogwe, although generously proportioned, was slightly more slender than Mma Ramotswe. But once she was in it, and had pinned the nurse’s watch to her front, she was a perfect picture of a staff sister at the Princess Marina Hospital. It was a good disguise, she thought, and she made a mental note to use it at some time in the future.

As she drove to Happy Bapetsi’s house in her tiny white van, she reflected on how the African tradition of support for relatives could cripple people. She knew of one man, a sergeant of police, who was supporting an uncle, two aunts, and a second cousin. If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that. But it did mean that charlatans and parasites had a very much easier time of it than they did elsewhere. They were the people who ruined the system, she thought. They’re the ones who are giving the old ways a bad name. (Smith 4)



McCall, Smith A. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998. Print.

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