Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe - Proprietor of the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency; Gaborone, Botswana


"The Miracle at Speedy Motors"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 15, 2008)

"Yes, one had to earn a living; yes, one had to work with people who might have their little ways; yes, the world was not always as one might want it to be; but all of that seemed so small and unimportant under this sky.  The important thing, Mma Ramotswe told herself, is that you are breathing and that you can see Botswana about you; that was the only thing that counted."

Everyone in the world loves Mma Ramotswe, it seems, but in this ninth novel in the Alexander McCall Smith series, Precious Ramotswe, the "traditionally built" proprietor of the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, receives a threatening letter:  "Fat lady: you watch out!  And you too, the one with the big glasses.  You watch out too."  Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, of the big glasses, are startled by this letter, enough so that Mma Ramotswe even begins to believe that she is being followed.  As the two women deal with their business and their lives, the letter haunts them—it is so uncharacteristic of the gentle, sweet-spirited life of Botswana, a place where, in Mma Ramotswe's experience, almost any problem can be worked out over a cup of bush tea. 

Continuing the stories of Mma Ramotswe and those around her, this novel, like its predecessors, contains a mystery or two, and many episodes of daily life which develop the characters further, quietly teach a few lessons, show how humor and polite behavior can improve even the worst of situations--and generally make the reader long for "the good old days" when life was simpler, communication usually took place face to face, and people respected and cooperated with each other. 

The central mystery of the novel is uncomplicated.  A woman has come to Mma Ramotswe because her mother has confessed that there is a secret about the woman's birth, but before she has a chance to explain the secret, the mother becomes "late."  The woman believes that she is not the daughter of her late "mother," and as she has no brothers or sisters, she wants Mma Ramotswe to find her birth family.

Subplots galore keep the stories flowing.  The fuss-budget-y Grace Makutsi, who is engaged to marry Phuti Radiphuti, a wealthy furniture seller, picks out a fancy bed (complete with red velvet heart) which she and Phuti will occupy after they are married.  When she has it delivered to her house so she can use it until the wedding, the bed precipitates a disaster.  At the same time, Mma Ramotswe begins to suspect that one of the employees of Speedy Motors, the auto repair shop run by her honest and honorable husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, is, for some reason, the author of the threatening letter.  When Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni meets a rural doctor who convinces him that their wheelchair-bound daughter Motholeli might be able to walk again if she sees specialists in Johannesburg, he will to stop at nothing—not even the doctor's enormous fee--to see if he can help her.

How all these plots and subplots are reconciled—always with love—will keep the many fans of Mma Ramotswe and her adventures thoroughly entertained.   The "novel" is more a series of short episodes in the life of Mma Ramotswe than a mystery in the traditional sense, and the warm, feel-good atmosphere which pervades the book provides a respite from the insistent realism of other contemporary detective stories.  Ultimately, the "miracle" of Speedy Motors—and the "miracle" of this series—reveals itself, the ability to face life and deal with whatever it dishes out with kindness and love.  Escape reading of the highest order, the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series features characters who feel familiar, make us love them, and inspire us to obey our best instincts.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 144 reviews

 

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"The Good Husband of Zebra Drive"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky NOV 20, 2007)

"She knew exactly where she came from and where she belonged."

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive once again proves that Alexander McCall Smith is an alchemist who can transform ordinary life into something extraordinary. The "traditionally built" Precious Ramotswe is contentedly married to her devoted mechanic husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and she continues to operate her No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency with the help of the capable Mma Makutsi. She is also busy caring for two foster children, Motholeli and Puso. However, change is in the air.

Mma Makutsi is engaged to the well-to-do Phuti Radiphuti, and although she is grateful to Mma Ramotswe for her generosity and friendship, she is thinking of quitting her job. Meanwhile, Mr. Matekoni tries his hand at detecting with mixed results, and he is horrified to stumble across photographic evidence that his wife may be seeing another man. Finally, one of Mr. Matekoni's shiftless apprentices, the irresponsible Charlie, has dreams of independence that may take him away from his position at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

Precious Ramotswe is a sea of calm amidst all of this turmoil. She unhurriedly starts work in the morning with a cup of bush tea. She drives slowly in her little white van, enjoying the sky, the sunshine, the sound of the birds, and the sight of cattle that remind her of her late beloved father Obed Ramotswe. She appreciates having a conscientious and kind husband and two good children. Although Mma Makutsi can be prickly at times, Precious values her friendship and depends on her fine secretarial skills.

The Good Husband Zebra Drive is filled with the wise sayings of a woman who knows her own worth and who is satisfied with her station in life. She tackles problems large and small with common sense and finely honed intuition. This time around, Mma Ramotswe looks into three mysterious hospital deaths as well as a case of theft in a printing company. She uses the knowledge that she acquired long ago from reading "The Principles of Private Detection," by Clovis Anderson, to help her deal with her clients' problems. Even if she fails to bring about a perfect resolution to every matter, Ramotswe always tries to do the right thing without hurting anyone else in the process.

This novel is another humorous, lyrical, and loving tribute to Botswana and to the values that Mma Ramotswe and those like her hold dear: loyalty, compassion, honesty, and kindness. Although the writing is simple, it is never simplistic. Many readers will finish this charming book in less than a day, and when they do, they may be tempted to turn back to page one and read it all over again.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 144 reviews

 

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"In the Company of Cheerful Ladies"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"There was no doubt in Mma Ramotswe's mind that Botswana had to get back to the values which had always sustained the country and which had made it by far the best country in Africa. There were many of these values, including respect for age—for hardship—and respect for those who were traditionally built. It was all very well being a modern society, but the advent of prosperity and the growth of the towns was a poisoned cup from which one should drink with the greatest caution. One might have all the things which the modern world offered, but what was the use of these if they destroyed all that which gave you strength and courage and pride in yourself and your country?"

Mma Precious Ramotswe, warm-hearted proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, is drinking tea at an outdoor café when she witnesses the theft of a bracelet. In her haste to apprehend the female thief and return the bracelet to the poor vendor, she leaves her table without paying her bill. The waitress hurries after her, accuses her of intentionally neglecting her bill, and then offers to "forget" about it if she pays her an extortionate fee. Mortified, Mma Ramotswe hopes that no one else has seen the waitress berating her. When the woman at the next table, accompanied by her two children, smiles at her, Mma Ramotswe is relieved that she has not seen the incident. Then the woman comments, "Bad luck, Mma…They are too quick in this place. It is easier to run away at the hotels."

Distressed by what she sees as the significant loss of some of Botswana's traditional values, Mma, a "traditionally built" woman, believes ever more fervently in setting a good example and upholding these values in her own life. Respect for others underlies the whole value system, and for Mma and her friends, it is one's kindly relationships with other people which serve as the glue keeping society together. Much of their daily life involves taking the time to sit down together, drink bush tea, and casually talk around a subject, rather than address it aggressively.

Mma Ramotswe is an efficient but very busy woman. Recently married to Mr. J. L. B. Matekone, proprietor of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mma Ramotswe runs her detective agency (where she doles out homespun advice and often serves as a "mother confessor"), takes care of two orphaned children whom her husband has taken under his wing, mentors Mma Grace Makutsi, her assistant, and endeavors to get the two apprentices at her husband's garage to become responsible citizens. The backgrounds of the characters and Mma Ramotswe's responsibilities have all have been presented in previous novels in the series, but readers new to the series need have no fear that they will be at a loss. McCall Smith is careful to sketch in enough background that the characters and their past histories are clear.

All the familiar characters continue to evolve here as they face new challenges. Mma Ramotswe is revealed to have a very deep secret, something she has not shared even with Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and she is desperate to have it remain a secret. Mma Makutsi, now happily ensconced in her own small cottage, and with her nighttime "Kalahari Typing School for Men" a huge success, decides to treat herself to ballroom dancing lessons, where she meets Phuti Radiphuti, a hopelessly clumsy man whose stammer makes him difficult to understand. The orphans, Puso and Motholeli, seeing Mma Ramotswe's distress and not knowing the reason, begin to fear that Mma Ramotswe will send them back to the orphanage. Charlie, one of Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni's apprentices, finds a wealthy woman to support him, and becomes even less interested in working, and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni actively seeks a new employee.

Throughout the series, plots and subplots serve merely as vehicles which allow characters to develop and cultural values to be explored. The "difficult problems" that occupy the characters here involve an intruder in Mma Ramotswe's house; mysterious goings on at Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni's former residence, which he has rented out; the reappearance of Note Makoki, Mma Ramotswe's first husband; the theft of her little white van; and the detective agency's search for a missing man from Zambia. Not very dramatic when regarded on a large scale, these events are significant in the lives of these ordinary people who are trying so hard to live their lives with dignity.

One of the special pleasures of this novel is the introduction of a new character, Mr. Polopetsi, whose story of his unjust imprisonment so affects Mma Ramotswe (and the reader) that she employs him to work part-time in her husband's garage and part-time in the detective agency. Like Mma Ramotswe, he believes in traditional values, and his honesty, conscientiousness, and devotion to good people make him a wonderful character who is certain to be further developed in additional novels in the series.

In the course of this series, McCall Smith's characters become the reader's friends, and reading these novels is like returning to a familiar neighborhood. As always, the pace is leisurely as the author recreates the colorful everyday lives of a repeating set of characters who treasure friendships, treat each other with respect, and possess inherent good sense. Full of gentle humor and much wisdom, the novel reveals complex social relationships expressed in simple, direct prose, and emphasizes the richness of a traditional life without including the violence, sex, or horrors which so often fill contemporary "detective" stories. Warm, witty, and nostalgic, this series is happy reading, and this novel is a fine addition to the series.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 100 reviews

 



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series:

44 Scotland Street

Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series:

Isabel Dalhousie Mystery:

Children's Books:

Other:

  • The Criminal Law of Botswana
  • Changing People: The Law and Ethics of Behavior Modification (1994)
  • Health Resources and the Law (1994)
  • Forensic Aspects of Sleep (1997)

Movies from books:

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith, born in 1948, grew up in Zimbabwe and was educated in Zimbabwe before moving to Scotland to study law. He returned to Botswana to help set up the country's law faculty at the University of Botswana as well as working on the criminal law of Botswana. He then returned to Scotland and has been a professor of medical law in Edinburgh. In addition to his university work, he is the vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the UK, the chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO.

He has written over fifty books tranlsated into 26 languages), including reference work, children's books and novels. His No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is immensly popular and won him the British Book Award in 2004 and is shortlisted for the prize in 2005.

He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with his wife Elizabeth (an Edinburgh doctor) but returns regularly to Botswana. As of 2004 is on a three year leave from his academic position in order to focus on writing for three years. His hobbies include playing wind instruments, and he is the co-founder of an amateur orchestra called "The Really Terrible Orchestra" in which he plays the bassoon and his wife plays the flute.

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