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September 26, 2022

Review in Haiku: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

By Katrina Stonoff

Inherited cows,
sold, let Botswana woman
become private eye.


The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith, is the best example I've ever seen, bar none, of how to clearly set a story in a specific place.

It takes place in Botswana, and this story could not have happened anyplace else. The flora and fauna, the cultural mores, the architecture, sights, smells, people's names -- everything brings the African veldt to life.

When Precious Ramotswe inherits a herd of cattle, she sells them and opens a detective agency (run by a lady, not for them). The book tells her story, and that of several of her more interesting clients.

In places, Ladies' Detective Agency echoes an African folk tale, and I suspect Smith intended the echo. In that way, it is skillfully written, not to mention fun to read.

However, I have never been a fan of episodic novels, and since many chapters tell the story of her current client, Ladies' Detective Agency blurs the line between episodic novel and themed short story collection. But I want my fiction to have a story arc: central conflict that builds that runs through the entire book. Otherwise, my interest doesn't hold from one story to the next.

Along the same lines, if I'm interested in a person, I want more than a 20-minute glimpse into his life, and if I'm not interested, I don't even want that. So the very structure left me a little flat.

And while I found Ms. Ramotswe a very likeable character, her thinking was rather simplistic. Yet she "solved" sticky issues for her clients, using only her innate intuition.

Put less diplomatically, the fastest way an author can alienate me is to push my "Oh, puhleeze!" button. And unfortunately, the button remained firmly depressed for much of this novel.

Like when, in her first case, Ramotswe got a pseudo father to 'fess up by telling him his "daughter" needed blood. And like when she "proved" another client's husband was a ladies man by picking him up in a bar (in this country, we call that entrapment).

I know Smith has been very successful: Ladies' Detective Agency is a bestseller; there are six different Ladies' Detective Agency books, and his critical reviews are generally positive.

And I can see some of the appeal. The book is charming. It's an effortless read, nice for vacation fare.

In fact, you can take this one to the beach, and your children will never be in danger because you won't be sucked into the book and forget to watch them. At least, I won't be. Sigh.

Although I do like that Ms. Ramotswe is a plus-sized heroine. You go, girl!

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-04-09
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