Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Anchor Books, 1998; 235) is an interesting detective story set in Botswana. It is unique, in that it brings both the old and the new together. It is not superfluous with its description of Africa as a tomb for the death and the dying and only inhabited by wild animals as is wont of most novels about Africa, even by Africans themselves. In this novel, there is a sort of convergence between the modern and the traditional and the country is presented as a country in transition. Too often, novels, novellas and short stories set in Africa or about Africa are pathetic and pathos-seeking. They tend to address the extremities, ranging between negatives stereotypes and idyllic romanticism. It's as if the larger chunk of the people do not exist: it is either saintly or devilish.
In this story Mma Ramotswe is a detective and the only female detective in the whole of Botswana. As an only child, her father, who had worked at the mines until he ran back home out of fear for his life and who had contracted the respiratory disease common among miners, had wanted her to sell his almost two hundred cows and buy a store - probably a butcher store. (And yes, the man never suppressed Mma Ramotswe nor married again when the wife died. He loved her daughter and even when he did not approve of her first husband, Note Mokoti, he never objected him till Note revealed to her who he really was with series of abuses.) But Mma Ramotswe wanted to do something different, she wanted to be a detective and so set out, against the advice of attorneys and others, to becoming one. The rest of the stories are about the series of cases she helped solved. Using local knowledge, instincts and a book for detectives she had ordered, Mma Ramotswe approached her work diligently, uninhibited by her enormous proportions.
Together with her small white van they became an inseparable pair. From solving a man whose wife had reported him missing and of whom she had assumed had run off with another woman - only to turnout in the belly of a crocodile - to a boy who was kidnapped and sent to a far off place to look after cattle, the reader would have fun-filled reading. With Mma Ramotswe, satisfaction is guaranteed, for in cases where the problem was difficult to solve or did not end well, she waived her fees. However, as a businesswoman she knew where to charge high and where to let go - like Mr Patel, possibly the richest man in Botswana, who wanted Mma Ramotswe to track her teenage daughter whom he suspected of having an affair with a boy named Jack. Mr Patel was willing and eager to pay almost ten times the cost, even though Mma Ramotswe felt guilty for doing that later. She also cracked a case involving a Dr Mokoti whose performance at the hospital he works for alternates between excellent and poor. At one time he would solve an important medical problem and at another he could not even suture. Suspecting him of drugs Dr Maketsi approached Mma Ramotswe, her old friend from Mochundi where they schooled together. And this she did with surprising outcome. At this time the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency situated at the foot of the Kgale Hill had become famous.
One thing about this story is its hilarity at some points. One just have to imagine an African woman of enormous proportions crouching under trees, in windows, killing crocodiles. And it was her trickery and intelligence that helped her most of the time. The only problem with this story, of which there might be a reason, is that there was a long background of Obed Ramotswe, Mma Ramotswe's father, and of the latter too. It dragged on for pages on end that one might thought it is of whom the story is about. Yet, since this is the first book of the series, it is possible that McCall Smith was just providing the background for the subsequent ones. I also felt that the number of cases could have been reduced and the actual investigation stretched so as to contain a lot of the drama and tension. As it is now, the many investigations to be carried out dulled the tension so that one moved from one problem to the other as if playing a hopscotch. In the end, this is an interesting non-sorrow-filled story and yet it carries the essence of Africa (or of Botswana) in it. The animals, which sometimes are talked about as if the continent has no humans, were mentioned but so too were the fears and aspirations of the people; and the traditional beliefs in voodoo; and the churches that are springing; and the middle class; and the diversity. A good story; it is recommended.