The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a sweet book with engaging characters. It is not a challenging read but it is an uplifting one. McCall Smith makes serious points with an admirable lightness of touch and without a hint of lecture. Reading it is a very pleasant way of spending an afternoon. It may lack bite for some but would be perfect for younger readers beginning to make the leap into adult fiction.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: June 2003
Publisher: Abacus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 034911675X

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Precious Ramotswe would like to be the Miss Marple of the African continent. When her father dies, she does as he has asked - as any good daughter would - and sets up a business. Mma Ramotswe's business is not exactly the one her father had imagined, though. Precious sets up the very first ladies' private detective agency in Botswana. Its assets are modest: an office; an old white van; two desks; two chairs; a telephone and an underworked secretary. Unambitious this may seem but the real asset to Mma Ramotswe's detective agency is Mma Ramotswe herself. An ample woman - "Hey fat lady, what are you doing sitting beneath that tree?" - Precious Ramotswe has much experience in life, a keen intelligence and an irrepressible desire to help people and to do good. With her minimal practical resources and her infinite stores of wisdom and keen perception, she sets out to solve the cases of the missing boy, the missing husband, the stolen car, the wayward daughter and - her very first case - the father impostor.

Do not expect a twisting, turning mystery story. Expect a sweet, heart-warming story about a wise, kind, sensible woman. McCall Smith's writing is fluid, accessible and highly evocative. There are some beautiful descriptions of Africa and its vast, often empty expanses. There is also a gentle, but sharply observed flow of dry humour. McCall's descriptions of his host of supporting characters are, unerringly, right on the button. Mr Patel, for example, the wealthy Indian with the wayward daughter, has an over the top house decorated in "Delhi Rococco" style I loved that! Structurally the book is... well... eccentric. All the various plot threads resolve themselves by the end, but there is a fair amount of meandering along the way. I imagine this was deliberate; Precious Ramotswe is not a woman in a hurry, just as Africa, in McCall's vision, should not be a continent in a hurry and I did not mind it at all. The diversionary chapter in which Obed Ramotswe tells the story of his life working in South African mines I found sad but beautiful. Revenge and retribution are not themes of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency - no one dies a horrible death, people are not persecuted for their sins - but reconciliation, understanding, honour and justice are real, running issues. I found this deeply refreshing. Even more refreshing was the way in which McCall describes love in terms of all our senses and with reference to everything in our daily lives. This, to me, is just as we should all describe it: rooted in all that we do and all that we are. Like this:

"He looked at her in the darkness, at this woman who was everything to him - mother, Africa, wisdom, understanding, good things to eat, pumpkins, chicken, the smell of sweet cattle breath, the white sky across the endless, endless bush, and the giraffe that cried, giving its tears for women to daub on their baskets; O Botswana, my country, my place."


McCall Smith has been criticised for presenting a patronising, condescending picture of Africa and its people. Critics say that his characters are mere caricatures representing an almost offensive - and certainly anachronistic - view of Africans as simple, childlike natives. Oh, hear me sigh. Why, just because something is not arch, or sarcastic or satirically self-aware, must it be not only unfashionable, but also patronising? What is wrong with simplicity? What is wrong with writing about good people? Good people are not necessarily foolish or ripe for patronising. What is wrong with niceness? The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a nice book but it is not a naïve one. It sees and acknowledges evil and it is not afraid to face it. Precious Ramotswe is a good woman but she is also a wise woman with an awareness of human nature borne from experience. She is the wise grandmother or aunt to whom you often turned as a child when you were in need of advice. Frankly, I think the literary world could do with a few more like her. We have edgy in plenty in books, do we not? We have plenty of leading characters who carry their "issues" like a badge of pride. In any case, underneath the feel-good factor in No1 Ladies' Detective Agency runs a rueful, honest commentary on some of the problems facing Africa: gender issues; development; poverty; "progress". I don't think McCall Smith presents a patronising view of these issues at all; I think he gets right to the heart of them. And, in his gentle, distilled words, I think he has more of the answers to these problems than do the tub-thumpers and satirists. We need more people like Mma Ramotswe and if we had them, the world would be a better place.

I truly enjoyed reading The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but, if I am honest, I shall not be rushing over to Amazon to buy the following books in the series. This is not so much a matter of my not thinking they would be worth my while, because I am quite sure that they would be. It is more a matter of so many writers, so many books and so little time. I am not really a "series person" and I think I would rather move on to pastures new. Whether you are a "series person" or not, though, I am sure you would enjoy this first of McCall's LDA books. It reads wonderfully as a standalone novel and achieves enough closure for you to feel satisfi ed. Yet also, it sets up an endearing, interesting character for anyone who likes to see a favourite person appear again and again. It is a captivating little book, wonderfully uplifting to read. As for my title: well, it says it all really, I think. I found it among the testimonials on the inside cover of the book. Amidst the various lit crit sound bites from the usual [pompous] reviewing suspects there are a few words from Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. With a similarly simple, direct approach to that of Precious Ramotswe, I think he hit the nail on the head of this book's appeal. And so, I will echo him...

... if you like to be happy, I highly recommend The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

For the start of another of AMS's detective series, have a look at The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith.

Booklists.jpg The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith is in the Top Ten Books About Africa.

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Buy The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith at


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Claire Holty said:

I found this book too simple. The plots were simple, the ideas were simple and the methods were too wandering. I wont be reading any more in this series, it send me to sleep.