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.
There is nothing stopping you from just picking up any book in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and just giving it a read. The books can be enjoyed as stand-alone reads. But I would highly recommend reading the series in the order published. There is much character development throughout the books, so it is enjoyable to follow that progress as it develops.
There is an all-too-short TV series adaptation of the series. I can only highly recommend it. It is an absolute viewing pleasure, encapsulating rather splendidly the feel of the books. It is really well done.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series
(In chronological order)
1. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Precious Ramotswe’s methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.
2. Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has become a huge success in Botswana, and its lead detective is gaining quite the reputation. Soon business is so good that her talented secretary Grace Makutsi is promoted to the dizzying heights of Assistant Detective.
3. Morality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
Precious Ramotswe continues her adventures with a cacophony of intriguing cases that lead her into the crazy world of car repairs and beauty pageants. The gifted detective finds business going so well that she has to expand.
4. The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
Mma Precious Ramotswe is content. Her business is well-established with many satisfied customers. She has a house, two adopted children and a fine fiancé. But as always there are challenges. She is a very busy lady and must find the time to juggle her new clients with her personal life. Meanwhile, her able assistant, Mma Makutsi, has decided to establish a typing school for men.
5. The Full Cupboard of Life (2004)
Still engaged to the estimable Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe wonders when a date for her wedding will be named, but she doesn’t want to put too much pressure on her fiancé. Mma herself has other weighty matters on her mind. She has been approached by a wealthy lady and has been asked to check up on several suitors. Are these men interested in the lady or just her money?
6. In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
Precious Ramotswe is busier than ever at the detective agency when she discovers an intruder in her house and a pumpkin on her porch. Her associate, Mma Makutsi, also has a full plate. She’s taken up dance lessons, only to be partnered with a man with two left feet. Mma Ramotswe’s normally unshakable composure is rattled by a visitor who forces her to confront a difficult secret from her past.
7. Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
The many problems that lead customers to Mma Ramotswe’s door seem to be multiplying, and no sooner has she settled into her newly married state than she finds herself looking into several troublesome matters at once. And to further complicate matters, Grace Makutsi may have scared off her own fiancé.
8. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
The cases keep coming into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and Mma Makutsi’s impending marriage threatens her happy working relationship with Mma Ramotswe. Will the agency have the manpower to cope? In the midst of this, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni decides to try a little detective work – and naturally, disaster looms.
9. The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
Mma Ramotswe discovers that there are downsides to being the best-known lady detective in Botswana when she receives an anonymous threatening letter. But there are very few problems that cannot be solved with kindness, and very few dry seasons that do not end with welcome rain.
10. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
Mma Ramotswe ventures into new territory as she attempts to foster understanding between the sexes and find the cause of a football club’s unexpected losing streak. She drinks tea in unfamiliar kitchens and finds that we must dig deep to uncover the goodness of the human heart.
11. The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are called to a safari lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to carry out a delicate mission. The Okavango makes Precious appreciate once again the beauty of her homeland. A paradise of teeming wildlife, majestic grasslands, and sparkling water, it is also home to rival safari operators, fearsome crocodiles, and disgruntled hippopotamuses.
12. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
As the countdown finally begins to Mma Makutsi’s wedding, all is not as it should be at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. While investigating unpleasant occurrences on a southern cattle-post, Mma Ramotswe has reason to reflect on Rule No. 3 of The Principles of Private Detection: never lie to a client.
13. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
Precious Ramotswe is very busy these days. The best apprentice at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is in trouble with the law. Grace Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti are embarking on married life and building a new house. Mma Potokwane, the orphan farm’s respected matron, has been dismissed from her post. And help arrives from an unexpected visitor: none other than the estimable Mr. Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection.
14. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
While Mma Makutsi is kept busy with motherhood, Mma Ramotswe must grapple alone with two puzzling cases dealing with family secrets, fraud, and vicious smear campaigns.
15. The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe (2014)
Over the years Mma Ramotswe has found many lost things, but never before has she been asked to help a woman find herself. Meanwhile, motherhood proves to be no obstacle to Mma Makutsi’s professional success, as she launches a new enterprise of her own: The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café. It becomes quickly apparent though that she’s bitten off more than she can chew.
16. The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
Business is slow at the agency, so slow in fact that for the first time in her distinguished career, Mma Ramotswe has reluctantly agreed to take a vacation. The week of uninterrupted peace is cut short, however, when she meets Samuel, a wayward young boy with a troubled past.
17. Precious and Grace (2016)
A woman from Australia wants to thank her childhood nursemaid for being such an important part of her life. But Precious has to find this woman first, which proves to be more difficult than first thought. Back at the office, she’s got a team to manage: Mr. Polopetsi, a part-time science teacher and new assistant; Charlie, a former mechanic apprentice, who’s always in deep water; and then there’s the tumultuous but heartwarming friendship with her co-director, the fiery Grace Makutsi.
18. The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)
Precious Ramotswe has always idolized her father, the late Obed Ramotswe. She feels that she knows all about his life – but does she? The same goes for Mma Makutsi, who also makes certain discoveries about her own past that cause some surprise. Of course, calm eventually prevails. Tea is served, and life continues.
19. The Colors of All the Cattle (2018)
Mma Ramotswe is being persuaded to run for City Council. To be elected, Mma Ramotswe must have a platform and some policies. She will have to get Mma Makutsi’s views. But lurking around the corner, as ever, is the inextinguishable Violet Sephotho, Mma Makutsi’s nemesis since secretarial school.
20. To the Land of Long Lost Friends (2019)
Mma Ramotswe reconnects with an old friend who has been having problems with her daughter. Though Precious feels compelled to lend a hand, she discovers that getting involved in family affairs is always a delicate proposition.
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a
matter of chance.”