Over twenty years ago, in 1998, the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s latest series was published. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was the title, and the world was introduced to the most precious of number one lady detectives, namely Precious Ramotswe. Since then, the series has proved to be immensely popular. And to top it all off, the twentieth book in the series is set to land on shelves in September 2019!
So, in celebration of this milestone, I’ve decided to try and sum up the appeal of this series. And if you’re looking for some summer reading, well, perhaps I can convince some to pick up a book or two about the traditionally built Botswanan detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe. Because there is something so eminently likable and relatable and aspirational about Mma Precious Ramotswe. She is utterly loveable, and the books are pleasurable beyond measure.
So, here’s why you should be reading Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
Precious is Too Precious
Mma Precious Ramotswe, the first female detective in Botswana, is a character you quickly come to love. Following her dear Daddy’s death, she takes her inheritance and moves to Gaborone to start up The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She has no professional training as such, but she’s got her detecting Bible – a dogeared copy of Clovis Andersen’s The Principles of Private Detection – which she liberally cites in book after book. And she’s got her gumption, her steadfastness, her good humor, her compassion, her curiosity, and her wisdom. Furthermore, Precious is wise beyond her years, listens with all her heart, savors her bush tea and always says yes please to an extra slice of cake.
She insists on driving her dear departed Daddy’s van, despite it always being in need of repair and chronically listing to one side. I did mention that she is a traditionally built woman. And besides the traditional build, she is also a traditional lady, often ruminating on the changing of ways in her homeland, on the traditional ways that are being lost in this fast-paced, electronic age. No one would ever accuse Mma Ramotswe of being fast-paced. This is a woman who always takes her time, having just another cup of tea to ponder and think.
Precious steadily builds a network in Gaborone. With her vehicle chronically needing help to keep driving, she befriends and is befriended by the mechanic Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns his own garage. He is rather smitten with her from the get-go, and their gentle romance is a thread throughout the series. He is a traditional man himself, honorable, proper. Engines speak to him. He is generous, almost to a fault at times, and gives his young apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, very long leashes. Although he is often exasperated by them.
Precious decides she needs a secretary and in steps Grace Makutsi, a prickly pear, a stickler for rules and grammar. She is a woman who has come from poverty and worked very hard to earn a degree from Botswana Secretarial College, with a grade of 97%, which is loudly and proudly proclaimed at every opportunity. Grace gets incensed rather easily and bluntly says rather tactlessly many a declaration. She’s sporting a large chip on her shoulder and snips accordingly. Her shoes talk to her, making many pithy observations. She does seem to have a propensity for impractical footwear.
To this core group are many other fully-fledged individuals, who have been added and developed throughout the series. Our two main ladies both find love and create families as the books progress. There are longstanding friends and rivals. And all these characters worm their way into your heart as you read along.
Gentle Mysteries and Everyday Wisdom
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is cozy crime at its best. There are no serial killers with the attendant blood, guts and gore and spine-tingling suspense. Precious and Grace muddle along, dealing with philandering spouses, deceitful heirs, insurance fraud, missing persons, stolen goods and on it goes. They face much opposition and ridicule from some segments of society. They are “just” women. Business is often slow. Precious is often loath to take payment for services rendered to desperate people. However, Grace feels no such qualms.
But the mysteries and the cases take a second seat to the characters and their relationships and their observations about life. Truly, it’s the everyday wisdom that is one of the joys of these books. The books are liberally sprinkled with dry humor, with poignant and pithy observations and ruminations on life and humanity. You find yourself reading and smiling and laughing.
A Reading Pleasure
These books are pleasant. And maybe that sounds quaint or old school or ironic, but there is really no other way to describe them. They are incredibly nice reads, delightful, virtuous, so full of generosity and gratitude and optimism. There are such gentleness and love and understanding to be found in their pages. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series makes you feel good. And that goodness is such a reprieve from the 24-7 panic-stricken news cycle that bombards our day-to-day life in this electronic age.
So, to cozy up with Precious and Grace and read about their latest adventures and challenges and joys, well, it is sighingly lovely. But it’s not just escapism. After a tour with Precious, I am better able to proactively face the “bad news” of this world, the rampant inequality, the melting poles, the cyberattacks, the forest fires, and floods and wars and famines.
I can do so because these pleasant reads are full of hope. And hope keeps me going and doing and being. I never remember the plots, but I remember the feel of the books. They feel good and leave me feeling good.
Read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. They are lovely, lovely reads, pleasing to the soul and uplifting to the heart.
Turn to page two for an overview of the twenty titles in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.