Select one of the keywords
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency    by Alexander McCall Smith order for
No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2002 (1998)
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Alexander McCall Smith has created a truly unique mystery novel in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and it justifiably earns the label of 'One of the International Books of the Year' given by the Times Literary Supplement. Set in modern Botswana, it is the story of Precious Ramotswe, one of the most memorable fictional characters in years. Precious is a Botswana woman in her late 30's who was raised by her father to be independent and curious about life. She is a strong, large woman with a great love for her native country, and her adventures are entertaining and touching from start to end.

Although she makes an early and disastrous marriage, Precious soon is on her own again. Aged 34 when her father dies, she uses her small legacy to set up a detective agency, telling skeptics that women after all 'are the ones who know what's going on' since 'they are the ones with eyes' and are the 'fixers of lives'. Armed with nothing more than her keen intelligence, common sense and knowledge of human nature (plus a manual on detection), Precious advertises for clients.

Most clients who arrive at the detective agency have simple needs, such as learning if a husband is running around with other women or if an employee is cheating his boss. There is no overall mystery driving the story; rather it is more anecdotal in describing various cases, some of which have very unusual twists. The best part of the book is, in fact, not the mysteries but the stories of Precious and her father (who worked for many years in the South African mines), and of Botswana itself. Precious shows a great love of the Botswana countryside and for the African life which she feels is much more relaxed than the hectic lifestyles of Americans and Europeans with their 'soulless selfish lives'. As she says, 'she would not be anything but an African, never, even if somebody came up to her and said "Here is a pill, the very latest thing. Take it and it will make you into an American."'

In the world of mysteries, where many of the female protagonists are almost indistinguishable, Precious Ramotswe really stands out. A self-described fat woman with no interest in romance and a great contentment with her life, she is a real original. The Botswana setting is also a nice change of pace, allowing the reader to get a glimpse one of the less westernized African countries, and to appreciate its different rhythm of life.

Readers accustomed to a traditional mystery may initially be disconcerted by the lack of an ongoing puzzle to be solved. However, they will be well-rewarded by staying with the story of Precious's life and adventures. For those enchanted and wanting more, there are now two more Precious Ramotswe novels, Tears of the Giraffe and Morality for Beautiful Girls to enjoy.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Mystery books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews