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

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith certainly doesn’t need my praise; according to its cover, it is a national bestseller.  It’s one of those books with accolades from newspaper reviewers plastered on its front and back.  This is usually all the more reason for me NOT to like it.  (I’m contrary that way sometimes.)  However, when I saw that one of the later books in this series made it on to Sherry’s top 12 books of 2009 list, that was recommendation enough for me from a real person whose taste is similar to mine. 

First and foremost, this book is beautifully written.  It’s not your average mystery potboiler at all; in fact, I would call it downright literary, as others have before me.  Now I’m going to do something I’ve already admitted I don’t like:  call upon “the experts” to tell me (and you) if a book is good.  😉   According to The Wall Street Journal, this is “one of the most entrancing literary treats of many a year. A tapestry of extraordinary nuance and richness.” You can visit Alexander McCall Smith’s website to read what others have said about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I think I was just surprised by this book.  I was expecting something, well, more mysterious.  The fact is, most of the mysteries in this story are solved by the heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, within one or two chapters.  This book is all about characterization and nuance and the beauty of Africa.  (Check out this quotation, a lovely description by Precious’ father, to see what I mean.)  While reading this story, two other authors came to mind.  The obvious comparison is to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.  While I am in no way suggesting that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is on the same level as Cry the Beloved Country thematically, the language and overall spirit of the book is very similar.  The other, more obtuse comparison is between Smith’s work and that of Wendell Berry.  I just couldn’t help but think of my favorite quote from Hannah Coulter (the quote about education) when I read this passage in Smith’s work.  I guess what all of these authors have in common is, as Angie put it in the comments on this post, a well-honed ability to convey a “sense of place.”  To quote Angie even further, “[Smith’s] books make me feel like I should move to Africa.” 

I feel like I’ve put too serious a spin on what really is a fun book, too, though.  I actually laughed out loud on several occasions while reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency–its subtle, somewhat sarcastic humor is my favorite kind. While this passage is anything but subtle, it does showcase the entertaining workings of Mma Ramotswe’s mind:

As far as doctors were concerned, though, you might try as hard as you might to get information out of them, but they were inevitably tight-lipped.

Which was as it should be, thought Mma Ramotswe.  I should not like anybody else to know about my. . . What had she to be embarrassed about?  She thought hard.  Her weight was harldy a confidential matter, and anyway, she was proud of being a traditionally built African lady, unlike these terrible, stick-like creatures one saw in the advertisements.  Then there were her corns–well, those were more or less on public display when she wore her sandals.  Really, there was nothing that she felt she had to hide.

Now constipation was quite a different matter.  It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature.  She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did.  There were probably enough to form a political party–with a chance of government perhaps–but what would such a party do if it was in power?  Nothing, she imagined.  It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.  (195)

Funny, right?  Okay, now that I’ve referred to bathroom humor twice on my blog in one week, I’ll move on.  😉 

I am most definitely excited about reading more of this series, as well as Alexander McCall Smith’s other books.  I’m also curious about the television series based on this series of books.  Now admittedly, I don’t know much about HBO, but my memories of it growing up (in a family that didn’t have cable until I was a high schooler, and then it was highly censored cable 😉 )  make it difficult for me to imagine a book that is relatively clean (some references to s**, but NOTHING graphic or gratuitous; very little, if any bad language; etc.) appearing on this network.  Has anybody seen it?  Is it worth trying to track down? 

I’m hooked.  I’ll be reading more of Mma Precious Ramotswe.


16 Responses

  1. Everything I’ve read by McCall Smith is delightful, and full of humor and wisdom. I was amazed at how he could create two female characters, Mma R. and the Edinburgh woman from another series, who are both very true-to-life and yet so different from one another.

    I heard the author speak a few years ago. If you ever get the chance, it is worth the trouble and expense. He said then, “As you know, nothing happens in my books.” What happens is the warmest connection between author and reader, and among many humans, both fictional and real.

    • What a treat to hear this author speak! I can only imagine how engaging and warm and witty he would be.

      You are so right about the connections–I couldn’t have said it any better. 🙂

  2. Well, I’m very glad to read your review of it. Maybe I should try it again. I just didn’t get it at all but lots of people I know and respect absolutely love the series.

    I didn’t know it was made into a television series! That’s quite interesting. If you ever see it – you should do a guest Books on Screen post at 5M4B!

  3. The HBO series is wonderful! We don’t have that channel so we had to wait for the dvd to come out. (And I love the books!) The TV series is clean, and humorous, and entertaining – so HBO will probably not renew it. But we bought the dvd’s and my husband and children and I enjoyed them and agreed they were worth buying.

  4. When I first read The #1 Detective Agency it was not what I expected, but I kept reading them and have grown to enjoy them . This has led me to read the other books by Alexander McCall Smith and his 44 Scotland Street Series are by far my favorite.

  5. Hmm…I might have to check into this book. I’ve seen it many times, but I’m ashamed to say I have dismissed it as appearing ‘froofy’ and too light. Thanks to your compelling post, I will actually check it out from the library and give it a go!!


  6. I’m with Carrie (and I”ll have to email her now to compare notes). I didn’t get it. That’s surprising because I’m not one to require action, but I kept waiting for something to happen. Maybe I was waiting to love the characters. I actually read the first 2 or 3 at least.

  7. I read the first of this series, and I did enjoy it very much. I found it quite funny, and I definitely agree about the beauty of the writing. I didn’t continue with the series, though. Perhaps I’ll have to pick some more up this summer.

  8. I have picked this book up a hundred times and put it back down again. Your review makes me want pick it up again! This time, I’ll try to stick with it!

  9. I’ve wanted to start this series & just haven’t yet. Have to bump it up on my TBR list.

  10. I have seen this series mentioned, but the title didn’t appeal to me. After reading your review, I may have to change my mind. Thanks!

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