Monday, April 12, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith : No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a series of eleven novels by British author Alexander McCall Smith. To date I have read the first 6 while the other 5 books I am still unable to find in the local stores.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series
    •    1998 The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency
    •    2000 Tears of the Giraffe
    •    2001 Morality for Beautiful Girls
    •    2002 The Kalahari Typing School for Men
    •    2003 The Full Cupboard of Life
    •    2004 In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Not read yet :

    •    2006 Blue Shoes and Happiness
    •    2007 The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
    •    2008 The Miracle at Speedy Motors
    •    2009 Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

The author : Alexander (R.A.A.) "Sandy" McCall Smith, CBE, FRSE, (born 24 August 1948) is a Zimbabwean-born Scottish writer and Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. In the late 20th century, McCall Smith became a respected expert on medical law and bioethics and served on British and international committees concerned with these issues. He has since become internationally known as a writer of fiction.  He is most widely known as the creator of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

His novels  has now been made into HBO mini-series and is expected to be available for viewing by May 2010 at our M'sian  Astro HBO channel. I have watched all the trailers ( download from iTunes ) and I'd say each episode follow quite closely to the novels.

If you are looking for serious detective fiction this is not for you. It has none of the CSI genes. Though it carry a tagline of "detective" - detective essence is only part of the novel . You get to feel the characters - their idiosyncrasies , their lifestyle, their habits and practices, their traditions - I'd say this series of novels is a  refreshing change compared to  the normal detective novels churned out by European, UK and USA writers. There is virtually no violence in these novels. The books are well written and the story line flows smoothly over the pages. It is witty , entertaining and reading it is a good way to pass those lazy afternoons.  Reading the series, you too can capture the essence of the natural surroundings - is analogous to our typical kampung/village

The storyline mostly takes place in  Gaborone, capital of Botswana.  A  Motswana woman, Mma Precious Ramotswe, is the story protagonist and main detective. The novels are as much about the adventures and foibles of different characters as they are about solving mysteries. Each book in the series follows on from the previous book. The tagline of the series - " If you've got an apparently insoluble problem, then pay a visit to Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest – and only – female private detective. Her methods may be unconventional but she's got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side "
Some book review and comments on these series:

"The Miss Marple of Botswana." -- The New York Times Book Review"One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years." -- The Plain Dealer
"One of the most entrancing literary treats of many a year.... A tapestry of extraordinary nuance and richness." -- The Wall Street Journal
"What a treat. . . . Utterly charming." -- Entertainment Weekly
"A literary confection of . . . gossamer deliciousness. . . . There is no end to the pleasure that may be extracted from [this book]." --The New York Times Book Review
“Smart and sassy...Precious’ progress is charted in passages that have the power to amuse or shock or touch the heart, sometimes all at once.” –Los Angeles Times
“The author’s prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision. His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswana landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven’t read anything with such alloyed pleasure for a long time.” –Anthony Daniels, The Sunday Telegraph
"Utterly enchanting." --Chicago Sun-Times
"What a treat. . . . Utterly charming." -- Entertainment Weekly
"One of the most entrancing literary treats of many a year.... A tapestry of extraordinary nuance and richness." -- The Wall Street Journal

I list below a brief rundown of the series ( which I have condensed from the web reviews )   -  call it a $1 tour :

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
This first novel  tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives. Motivated to help others and to make Botswana a better place, she encounters many dangerous and risky obstacles in the course of her investigations, but succeeds through using her intelligence, courage and instinct.

Along with the plot developments, Mma Ramotswe provides observations upon the fine qualities of Botswana and Africa: the culture, traditions, and natural beauties found there, and the inhabitants' pride in their land.

Mma Ramotswe is portrayed as someone who loves "all the people that God made", but especially loves the "people who live in this place" and says that “they are my people, my brothers and sisters.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

Even Mma Ramotswe with all her modern views and ideologies, wants to buy a house when she retires, and live with her cousins and loved ones. He shows us the African values and traditions of these people. Family values are extremely important to this nation. “She would buy a house, or build one perhaps, and ask some of her cousins to live with her. They would grow melons on the lands and might even buy a small shop in the village...” Moreover, through the descriptions and images between the characters of this novel, Alexander McCall Smith shows how welcoming and warm-hearted Africans can be.

Tears of the Giraffe
Mma Ramotswe is unimpressed with her fiance's maid, who has been stealing from him and skimping on her work. The maid, sensing that the forthcoming marriage will involve her dismissal, attempts to plant a gun on Mma Ramotswe in order to have her jailed, but the maid's plan is foiled and it is she who ends up behind bars.

All attempts to solve the mystery have failed, but Mma Ramotswe's blend of local knowledge, instinct and compassion uncover the truth: the young man died accidentally; his death was concealed out of fear; and he left a son who can be made known to his grieving grandmother.

She also investigates a butcher's wife who is suspected of an affair, and discovers that the man's son has been fathered by another man who is paying for his private education. The resolution of this case highlights differences between the methods and moralities of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi. Mma Makutsi has expressed her yearning to do detective rather than administrative work, and Mma Ramotswe promotes her to assistant detective (although also retaining her secretarial role). The solution of the paternity case proves to be the first test of Mma Makutsi's detective and diplomatic skills.

Mr J. L. B. Matekoni is manoeuvred into offering a home to Motholeli and Puso, two orphaned children with a tragic past. He worries that this may affect his engagement to Mma Ramotswe, but she accepts the children and they both see potential in them, particularly in the girl, Motholeli, who is confined to a wheelchair but displays a real aptitude and interest in the work of the garage. A family unit begins to emerge.

Morality for Beautiful Girls
Precious Ramotswe, founder and owner of the only detective agency for the concerns of both ladies and others, investigates the alleged poisoning of the brother of an important "Government Man," and the moral character of the four finalists of the Miss Beauty and Integrity Contest, the winner of which will almost certainly be a contestant for the title of Miss Botswana. Yet her business is having money problems, and when other difficulties arise at her fiance's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, she discovers the reliable Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is more complicated then he seems.

With her No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in financial difficulty, Mma Ramotswe makes the tricky decision to share offices with her fiancĂ©, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. But although Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors could do with a little help, it is Mr Matekoni himself who really requires her attention.

The Kalahari Typing School For Men
Mma Precious Ramotswe is content. Her business is well established with many satisfied customers, and in her mid-thirties ("the finest age to be") she has a house, two adopted children, a fine fiancé. But, as always, there are troubles. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has not set the date for their marriage. Her able assistant, Mma Makutsi, wants a husband. And worse, a rival detective agency has opened in town--an agency that does not have the gentle approach to business that Mma Ramotswe's does. But, of course, Precious will manage these things, as she always does, with her uncanny insight and her good heart.

The focus shifts to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's garage, and more specifically, the apprentices, formerly described as lazy young men "always looking at girls." However, there is quite a change in the younger apprentice, who seems to have found religion and is now uninterested in discussing girls, to the chagrin of his fellow apprentice.

To increase her income, Mma Makutsi decides to open a typing school just for men, because, in her view, men usually cannot or don't want to type because they don't want to be bettered by women or do not want to be seen doing "woman's work". She manages to procure typewriters from her alma mater, the Botswana Secretarial College, and finds a place to teach at the younger apprentice's church. This business model is very successful.

Mma Makutsi then gets involved with one of her students, a Mr. Bernard Selelipeng, a married man passing himself off as divorced. Consequent to parallel developments involving Mma Ramotswe, Mr. Selelipeng is forced to break off with Mma Makutsi

To solve the current problem with Puso, Mma Ramotswe goes to the orphanage to consult the matron, Mma Silvia Potokwane, about him. Mma Potokwane's advises having Mr J.L.B Matekoni act as more of a father to the boy. Mr. J.L.B Matekoni does this, with apparently favorable results.

The Full Cupboard of Life   
Mma Ramotswe is now engaged to the mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, but he seems reluctant to set a wedding date, which makes her a little unhappy. She takes on an interesting investigation: Mma Holonga, a rich businesswoman, is seeking a husband, and asks Mma Ramotswe to check the men on her shortlist of four, to eliminate those who only want her for her money. Meanwhile Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe's assistant, moves to better rooms thanks to her promotion and extra income, but is mourning the loss of her brother.

Mma Potokwani, the formidable matron of the orphan farm, manoevures Mr J.L.B. Matekoni into agreeing to do a sponsored parachute jump to benefit the orphans. The gentle and timid mechanic is terrified at the prospect, Mma Ramotswe solves the parachute problem by persuading the garage apprentice Charlie to do it instead, convincing him that it will make him attractive to girls. Mma Potokwani offers to sort out the matter of the wedding by arranging it all herself, and presenting it to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni as a fait accompli - Mma Ramotswe agrees, although Mma Makutsi is horrified.

Everyone assembles at the orphan farm to watch Charlie's parachute jump, which is successful. And then Mma Potokwani surprises everyone by announcing that she has made all the preparations for the wedding, and with the help of a priest who is present, Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni are married there and then.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Mma Ramotswe and her new husband settle down to married life with their foster-children, but problems are piling up. At Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's own house, the tenant is running an illegal drinking den. Mma Ramotswe's violent ex-husband Note Mokote reappears. Then Charlie, the apprentice, gets entangled with a wealthy married woman. Help arrives in the person of Mr Polopetsi, whom Mma Ramotswe accidentally knocks off his bicycle with her van. He has been unemployed following a spell in prison after what appears to have been a miscarriage of justice, and Mma Ramotswe persuades her husband to employ him out of guilt and sympathy, but he proves an asset to the garage.

Mma Makutsi's love prospects improve when she starts dancing lessons and is partnered with another student, Mr Radiphuti. At first she tries to avoid him, as he is awkward and stammers, but he turns out to be a kind and gentle man and a romance begins. She removes some of Mma Ramotswe's burden of worry by solving an important fraud investigation on her own, and manoeuvring Charlie back to work. Mr Radiphuti's father enlists the help of Mma Ramotswe to put a proposal of marriage from his shy son to Mma Makutsi, and the two become engaged.

HBO Mini Series Link  

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