The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Series: No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Maturity Level: 4
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Precious Ramotswe has only just set up shop as Botswana’s No.1 (and only) lady detective when she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. However, 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 witch doctors.
As far as mystery novels go, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency doesn’t quite fit the usual mode. Instead of spending the course of the novel solving one huge mystery, Mma Romotswe solves one mini-case per chapter. It’s more like reading a Holmes novel than anything, because there aren’t really “clues” to help the reader play along, it’s more like watching Mma Ramotswe just do her thing.
In fact, the novel is in many ways kind of a treatise on the simple things. Love of country, good friends, family, a job that makes you happy. These are the things the novel is really about, not stolen cars or missing husbands. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably enjoy this book.
I want to take a second to address the elephant in the room. I find it a little odd that an older white man would choose to write a book about a black woman. Even if Smith did live a good portion of his life in Africa, it was still an unusual decision. I couldn’t tell for sure whether the overly simple writing style was a result of the cozy-esque, simplistic feel of the book, or because Smith has a prejudiced view of African people as simple. I hope the first. As the writing had a distinctly feminist slant, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. That being said, I don’t know how authentic the Botswanan setting, feel, and characters are. It felt authentic to me, for what little that’s worth. (It’s also worth noting that the novel is now nearly 20 years old, and may have been set in the past when published.)
Personally, I enjoyed the simple style and the slow pace. I thought the writing resonated with the message of the book. And even though there are some very difficult sections (trigger warnings for domestic abuse and death of an infant), the whole thing feels very happy. I like that books that feel happy.
I liked Mma Romatswe, the protagonist. She is clever and sassy, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. It’s fun seeing her figure out how to be a detective as she goes and defy everyone’s expectations. I was touched by her tragic past, and I was surprised how affected I was by the loss of her baby. I appreciated that Smith recognized that even years (decades?) later, she would still mourn her.
I also enjoyed the little mysteries she solved. They were usually small problems, but the little details would be what made them funny or surprising. They always ended just a little differently than you expected.
I would recommend this book to people who love cozy mysteries or happy-go-lucky reads. If you’re hyper-sensitive to cultural appropriation then give it a pass.