I just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and I can see why it’s proved so popular. It is different from the typical mystery or detective story. Precious Ramotswe is the first woman detective in Botswana. When her father dies, she uses her inheritance to set up her own little agency with just a secretary and herself as the sole private eye. The cases she investigates mostly involve missing people, from a man suspected by his wife to have eloped with another woman but who turns out to have been eaten by a crocodile to a boy abducted by a witchdoctor. Precious finds the boy and returns him unharmed to his parents. But she is not always successful. In one case, she is fooled by a schoolgirl.
There are no murders, no shootouts. The book follows her various cases and along the way tells her life story. The exotic locale combined with the complete ordinariness of the lives described gives the book a piquant charm. Precious and her friends are like people anywhere. I could empathise with her father who worked in the South African mines and returned home a rich man by his village standards and passed on his wealth to his daughter. Precious is ambitious and proves a successful businesswoman but she makes mistakes too. She fell in love with a musician in her youth and married him, despite her father’s misgivings, but he soon abandoned her after beating her up badly. The baby she had by him died soon after birth. But she has got over her personal tragedies by the time she sets up her agency. Precious the detective is a shrewd but good woman who is happy with her life.
There is a love interest too. Mr JLB Matekoni, the successful mechanic in whose car repair shop Precious drops in whenever she wants some company, proves more than a good friend. The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may be a story about a woman detective in Africa but it combines the wit and the humdrum peaceful social life found in a Jane Austen novel. The result is charming.