Thursday, 2 November 2006

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The first time I heard of Alexander McCall Smith was from an interview in the Sunday Star, a couple of years ago. He was asked, as a male writer, how did he manage to write such a convincing female character? He then turned to his wife who was sitting beside him, suggesting jokingly that she was actually the person behind the books.

Since then, I waited for the opportunity to enjoy his work. That opportunity finally came when this book arrived at my school's library.

The story is set in Botswana, which is like the rest of Africa, a place I know very little about. My only links to continent are my classmates, one Eritrean fellow from my batch and a lady in the new batch, a native of Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Precious Ramotswe, or Mma Ramotswe, is Botswana's first and only female private detective. Using the money her late father left her, she sets up a small detective agency near Kgale Hill, Gaborone, with a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, a typewriter, a teapot and 3 cups (for making redbush tea, of course).

Mma Ramotse cases include investigating a husband who disappeared during a baptism, a daughter of a rich Indian merchant who sneaks off behind the family's back to meet with a mysterious boyfriend and a doctor who seems to be alternately competent on one day and incompetent on another.

The first chapter is a hint of Mma Ramotswe's crafty mind. A client comes with the problem of a man claiming to be her long lost father, who was earlier thought to be dead. Driven by a hunch that man could likely a con, Mma Ramotswe decides to beat him at his own game, by pretending to be nurse and faking a life-threatening situation. Needless to say, in the end the old con is foiled by his own admission.

The cases are fairly puzzling and some of them can be figured out after reading a few pages. But this definitely an instance of when the journey far outweighs the destination. A large portion of the book is about Mma Ramotswe's investigations and the things that happened to her. Between the investigation and happenings are her observations of the people and the land that she calls home. In Mma Ramotswe's eyes, Africa is alive and kinetic as any place on earth, and its people as familiar as anyone could imagine.

This is one of the best book I've ever read. In my life. Going from the front cover to the next was an absolute delight. McCall Smith writes with such a sharp insight and a love for the place, people and culture. I wholeheartedly recommend The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency if you're looking for a something out of the ordinary, and, if you're like me, unable to afford to trip to Africa.


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