Polygon, 1998, 250 pages
This remarkably fresh and charming best seller took the world by storm upon its publication. It has since earned two Booker Judges' Special Recommendations and was voted one of the "International Books of the Year and the Millennium" by the Times Literary Supplement.
Mma "Precious" Ramotswe sets up a detective agency in Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, making her the only female detective in the country. At first, cases are hard to come by. But eventually, troubled people come to Precious with a variety of concerns. Potentially philandering husbands, seemingly schizophrenic doctors, and a missing boy who may have been killed by witch doctors all compel Precious to roam about in her tiny van, searching for clues.
Chosen as a Top Ten Mystery by the Organization of Independent Booksellers, U.S.A., The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is that rare novel that imparts a sage wisdom while inspiring hearty laughter and lasting smiles.
I like the occasional mystery, though I'm very much not a fan of cozies. Over the years, I've enjoyed a handful of series with an interesting hook beyond "tormented hot dude/gal with a past Solves Crime!" The modern mystery genre is full of series based on such "hooks" - Navajo detectives, Samurai detectives, Stalinist KGB detectives, Victorian Egyptologist detectives, and so on.
So, the "hook" for the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is that it's set in Botswana, and the main character, Precious Ramotswe, is the only lady detective in the country.
Precious is the sort of protagonist you don't see a lot of in popular genre fiction, and which lots of people say they want to see more of: she's an unabashedly fat black woman, she does not center her life around men, and she is not a "strong female character" in the sense of leaping into action with martial arts or paranormal abilities or guns blazing — just intuition, keen observational skills, and a sense of justice and humanity.
After having married a bad-boy trumpet player, a marriage which went the way of most such ill-thought marriages, Precious Ramotswe sells her inheritance from her father when he dies and uses it to start her own business, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Initially, there seems to be little demand for private detectives in Botswana, and none for a lady detective, but slowly, cases start trickling in. Of course, they are not exactly big-ticket cases. Women who want to know the truth about their philandering husbands (or say they do). Fathers who want to monitor their teenage daughters. A woman who suspects the man who suddenly appeared at her home and told her to go make him a sandwich might not really be her long-lost father, as he claims.
I liked this first book very much and thought Precious was wonderful and the stories were warm and mostly cheerful, but with just enough seriousness to keep them out of "cozy" territory, and just enough irony to keep them from getting schmaltzy.
I know precisely nothing I can't scrape off of Wikipedia about Botswana, so I cannot attest to how well Alexandra McCall Smith, a Zimbabwe-born Scottish author, portrayed a country he's lived in but is not a citizen of, from the POV of an African woman. Nothing in the book raised red flags for me, and I thought his treatment was respectful and sympathetic without being patronizing, but I've been burned before thinking a foreigner writing about another country did a fine job when according to the people living there now, it was, uh, not so great.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is really a series of short stories, told mostly in a humorous fashion, though a few of them begin to touch on less humorous topics, like domestic violence and abducted children. As suggested in my cautionary note above, it's hard to tell whether the "African" elements — poisonous snakes and crocodiles, many mentions of cattle as a measure of wealth, and a crime boss who uses the services of a witch doctor — are "real Botswana" or "literary Botswana." I mean, obviously there are poisonous snakes, crocodiles, cattle, organized crime, and witchcraft in Botswana, but are these really things the average person there considers commonplace, or are you reading a collection of charming cliches for the delectation of foreign readers? I dunno, all I can say is that I enjoyed the book.
Naturally, it only lasted one season.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (2008)
This 2008 series benefited from HBO's high production values, and it was actually filmed in Botswana. The first half dozen episodes feature stories from the first book mixed with a few others. It was obviously produced by people who were actually fans of the books, and it's definitely worth Netflixing.
If you like the books, you will like the TV series... all seven episodes of it before it was canceled. A show about an African lady detective was not as popular as grimdark fantasy with nekkid chicks — go figure.
Verdict: A series of light entertainment featuring Botswana's finest lady detective — what's not to love? The "mysteries" here are strictly low-rent, at least in the first book: Precious Ramotswe is a Jessica Fletcher or a Miss Marple, but with fewer murders to solve. Like many mystery series, its attraction is the main character and the setting, and, to my eye, Alexander McCall Smith renders decent service to both.
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