A deceptive detective novel

Alexander McCall Smith paints an affecting portrait of contemporary African life.

Sep 12, 2001 at 12:00 am

For most Americans, Africa has become a symbol of what essayist Robert Kaplan termed "The Coming Anarchy" in his pessimistic 1999 book of the same title. In both popular and expert opinion, the continent represents the antithesis of nearly every quality associated with Western civilization, embodying lawlessness, savagery, and backwardness. A century after Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Africa and its people remain that against which Westerners define ourselves.

In light of such perceptions, the challenge that African artists face in portraying their homeland lies in balancing the truth of Africa's often dire political, economic, and social conditions with the beauty of its diverse peoples, traditions, cultures, and landscapes, while at the same time identifying sources of hope. Nigeria's Chinua Achebe, the continent's most famous black writer, achieved this equilibrium perfectly in his best novel, Anthills of the Savannah. Now, in a deceptively frivolous new novel, so has Alexander McCall Smith, a writer who lived in Botswana but now teaches law at the University of Edinburgh. His The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is as honest and sympathetic a portrait of contemporary African life as Achebe's.

The novel's titular private investigation firm is owned by Precious Ramotswe, one of the most engaging, wise, good-natured, and generous characters to appear in fiction in years. As owner of the only detective agency in Botswana, Ramotswe attracts a wide variety of clients, from poor, unhappy wives to rich, African-born Indian merchants. Although the book's title suggests a Miss Marple-esque mystery, there is very little crime-solving here. Most of the puzzles Ramotswe solves are the kind that one imagines real private detectives investigate: philandering husbands, missing relatives, and background checks. Though mundane, Ramotswe's cases are far from dull. They illuminate the details of everyday life, in Botswana and elsewhere, and the moral choices we each face: "There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can't do that, [Ramotswe] thought. You just can't."

Smith, whose previous books include a textbook on Botswanan criminal law, writes in a simple, direct, and unaffected style, offering a complex and nuanced portrait of a society whose strengths and weaknesses can be traced to its people's adherence to tradition, prejudice, and superstition. Ramotswe, for example, lives in a rigidly patriarchal culture but benefits from the belief that women are more perceptive than men. Her Africa is a place of beauty and violence, of sophistication and stupidity, of kindness and cruelty, of generosity and greed; in short, a world we all recognize. And it is her home: "[Ramotswe] loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials. I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place."

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is one of those rare, unassuming novels that seems to contain all of life within its pages, and affirms life in telling its story. Africa could have no better chronicler than Smith, and no more fitting hero than Precious Ramotswe.

Mahinder Kingra is a contributing writing for City Paper where this piece originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected].