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(Unless stated otherwise, all text & pictures are © Lee Labuschagne, all rights reserved.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

1+1+1 for 365, day 16: A Precious Lady Detective

"It is sometimes easier to be happy if you don't know everything." - Alexander McCall Smith (Morality for Beautiful Girls)

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith

The novels featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe, who sets up the first private  detective agency in Gaborone,  Botswana, have become international bestsellers.  These stories are as much about human nature and a celebration of the best things about Botswana as it is about Mma's Ramotswe's unique way of solving her cases - cases that are not about murders and other major crimes, but about those smaller yet intriguing matters that are important to her clients.

The characters quickly find their way into your heart and soon you feel as though you personally know Mma Ramotswe,  her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi,  and her suitor (and later her husband), Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.  The always-formally addressed Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and in due course the books become as much the story about this establishment as it is about the detective agency.   It is a joy to get to know the cast of well-drawn major and minor characters and read the warm descriptions of everyday life in Gaborone.

It seems remarkable that these delightful novels were witten by a Scottish lawyer-turned full-time author. However, this fact is less surprising when one learns that McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and matriculated there (at CBC in Bulawayo). It is only when he started his university studies that he moved to Scotland to study law at the University of Edinburgh, and where he finally received his Ph.D. in law.

While teaching law at Queen's University in Belfast, his writing career also blossomed: he won a literary competition with a children's book and soon became a prolific author.  But it was the No 1 Ladies Detective books that won him international fame.  They have been translated into more than 40 languages and have sold more than 20 million copies to date.  They have been made into a TV series (with Jill Scott as Mma. Ramotswe) and McCall Smith also adapted the series for BBC Radio 4.

These books were doubtlessly inspired at least in part by his stay in Botswana the early 1980s, where he taught law at the University of Botswana.  He returned to Scotland in 1984 to live in  Edinburgh, Scotland with his wife, Elizabeth and their two daughters. 

Apart from the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, his output also includes other popular series (especially the Scotland Street series and Sunday Philosophy Club series) as well as the Von Igelfeld series and the Corduroy Mansions novels, short stories, children's books and a number of academic law books. Among others his stay in Botswana also lead to a scholarly book on the  The Criminal Law of Botswana.

The expression "feel good" is often associated with somewhat superficial sentimentality.  But McCall Smith's writing makes you feel good without being either superficial or sickeningly sentimental. Like Mma Ramotswe, the books are made of the down-to-earth goodness of the African soil and simple meals and provide a bit of shade from the worst of the midday sun. 

Still life with vases &  marbles

 Picture & text: © Lee Labuschagne - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Want to order a book online?

You probably know at least two of these sites already, but here they are anyway:,  (both mainly useful for Southern African readers and then internationally and the very popular


  1. I love your quote :-) It's something my mother said to me (in paraphrase) years ago when I was very low, struggling to cope with the kids. She reckons people were generally happier parents in her day because we didn't know so much about what could go wrong if we didn't make the right choices. Very wise, my Mum!

    Oh, and by the way, I love AMS's "precious" books but am not so keen on some of the others I've read (Three Pillars of Wisdom, Sunday Philosophy Club). But they're all meticulously-observed and well-written. I've met plenty of people who have developed a fondness for Africa as a result of reading his books, although they've never been to the continent. He should probably get commission from the Botswana Tourist Board ;-)

    Kerry Simpson

  2. Hi Kerry - I hope you don't mind, I pasted your comment via FB here. Loved what you said about your Mum and that quote!

    Agreed, the No 1 Ladies' Detective stories just have that special something. I've only read some of the others too - two of the Scotland St ones and a Philosophy Club one - so cannot comment on everything else though

  3. THE NO 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY !!!!!! One of my absolute bestevers! Those CDs - are they the Minghella production? That was just so pure Alexander Mc-S and pure Botswana uitgeknip!!

    Rene de Beer

  4. Hi René,

    Glad you enjoy it too. On the CDs - no it is a Hachette Audio book and read by Adjoa Andoh. I have not listened to it yet - it belongs to my sister and she wants to listen to them before I can 'borrow it back'. But am sure it will be as charming as the book and the TV series.


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