I can’t remember when I read my first book by Alexander McCall Smith. It was at least five years ago, but certainly less than a decade. And I didn’t do the “logical” thing and read the first entry in his “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series of novels, but instead started with another one, The Kalahari Typing School for Men. What can I say; it was there, so I read it … and liked it. Since that initial foray into the world of Precious Ramotswe and her crime solving pursuits in Botswana, I’ve read each installment in the series and have enjoyed them all immensely.
People often use the word “charming” to describe this series and that’s certainly apt. In the world of contemporary crime fiction, these books may not be hip or cutting edge, but they certainly are entertaining. The tales are fun and readers find themselves drawn to the cast of quirky and likeable characters, ones that we’ve grown to cherish and laugh with over the years. Except, of course, for that wicked and disagreeable wench Violet Sephotho!
Smith’s novels aren’t overflowing with gobs of gore or the usual suspenseful, page-turning action that you’ll find nowadays in most “thrillers” or crime fiction, but the gentle, neighborly nature is a big part of their appeal. The reader basically knows what they are getting: a light-hearted mystery with virtually no traces of blood or mayhem, but plenty of feel-good human drama. These are tales about people who make mistakes and do good deeds, people who cheat and deceive, but also love and forgive. Smith, in the form of Mme Ramotswe, dispenses lots of common sense and helpful advice; things that we intrinsically know and understand, but always bears being reminded. Smith’s solid and sparse prose can lull the reader into thinking that these are “light” reads, but he always sneaks in a few passages that are both eloquent and brilliant. These seemingly simple tales can pack plenty of depth and wisdom.
Although I’ve read every book in the series so far, I don’t rush out and buy the latest one when it comes out, as I do with the new novels of a writer like Lee Child, John Sandford, or Michael Connelly. But I do make a mental note to get the book eventually and if I’m lucky a secondhand copy ends up in my bookshop before that wait is too long. And that happened recently when I snagged his newest novel (well, it’s the newest paperback on the racks, at any rate; there is also a new hardcover that was published this year) in the series, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, perhaps even more than other recent titles in the series. This novel combines the usual multiple plot threads, as Smith weaves his subtle magic. Mma Ramotswe is the core of the story once again, and does her usual amazing job of balancing investigation, marriage, and diplomacy, all while dispensing helpful advice and solving those pesky crimes. In this latest episode, a couple of cows mysteriously die, Charlie the apprentice mechanic is suspected of fathering children, Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni buys a surprise gift for his wife, and Grace Makutsi, finally gets married … after ruining a pair of new shoes, of course! No DNA tests or ballistics results, but lots of smiles. If you’ve loved the other books in this series, you’ll enjoy this one too.
Smith has been putting out a ton of books in recent years. In addition to the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, he is writing novels for three additional series; The Sunday Philosophy Club, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions. I haven’t tried any of the books in those other series yet, but at some point I’ll probably succumb and start one. If nothing else, you have to admire the output of Alexander McCall Smith. This man is a veritable writing machine.