Wednesday, February 22, 2006

No. 1 Ladies' Detective

The hot, dry, dusty bush country of Botswana could hardly be further from New England in winter. Precious Ramotswe's job solving crimes and other mysteries could hardly be more different than working in an office. Maybe that's why I enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. It's the first in a series of books about the unconventional detective Mma Ramotswe*.

This is not an edge-of-your-seat mystery. It's much more of a character study -- both of Mma Ramotswe and of Botswana itself. Smith takes time to tell the story of Ramotswe's childhood and life as a young adult. He highlights her decision to become a detective to "help people with problems in their lives". Then he brings the reader along on many of Mma Ramotswe's early cases -- everything from a search for a missing person, to tailing a con man, to a surprising murder investigation.

The news from Africa these days is a litany of disease, civil war, genocide, and post-colonial turmoil. This has been the news for as long as I can remember. As Mma Ramotswe travels around Gaborone, Botswana, you sense those things in the background, but you also experience her abiding pride in the relatively peaceful recent history of Botswana and a strong connection to the land and the people. Mma Ramotswe loves her Botswana. I'm looking forward to another visit when I read the next book in the series.

* In Botswana, Mma is a term of respect. Mma is apparently the equivalent of Madam, just as Rra is the equivalent of Sir.

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