The Idyllic Charm of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

This past month has been an Alexander McCall Smith December. I just cannot seem to get enough of them. I have read other books too but I have binge read McCall Smith more.

Rita gave me a gift to be used on Amazon and I have been spending most of it on McCall Smith’s books. (Thanks Rita!) I never thought I would get addicted to these books. I have relaxed almost every rule in my rule book to read these books. For e.g.: I had a rule that if I bought books in a trilogy/quartet/series, they should all be in the same edition. I returned Half of a Yellow Sun twice because the book was a movie edition and did not ‘go’ with the other two books. Another was if a book looked old or used in any way, I would return it. But the last two McCall Smiths I got had a broken spine and one even had a British Airways ticket tucked into it. I worried about that for exactly two minutes before I opened it and started reading it.

I did not have any rules about reading books in the order they were published in the series. Each book I think once published is a single entity and while there may be connections between books, there is no compulsion to read the books in order. I read Harry Potter #3 first and then #1 and only then #2. (HP #3 is still my favourite.) After that Rowling started to write tomes and we had to go by the order since they were published quite far apart. Enough of the HP digression.

This addiction to McCall Smith is all quite surprising because I had read the first book in the series way back in 2007 and was not impressed by it. It was unlike any detective book I had read till then. I remember feeling anxious all through the book looking for familiar P.D James-like patterns. I was hugely disappointed and didn’t go near it till this year.

While I didn’t find the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (book #1) that exciting to continue, I keep following the titles that were released year on year. They had such delightful names: ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’, ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’, ‘The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.’ It was of course part McCall Smith himself since I have read this ‘44 Scotland Street’ series and they had all names that stood out as well (E.g.: ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’, ‘The Importance of Being Seven.’) However, I think partly – a big part – was Africa as well – the African twist to the English language – and McCall Smith’s tapping into it. Just like Indian writers use the Indian English language. (The other day I came across ‘Shri Ruby Saloon Gents Beauty Parlour’ and I had to smile.)

The second thing that happened was that I was reading a lot of African literature or books set in Africa since last year from serious books to YA books set in Africa. I was just drawn to them. I saw films set in Africa too: Africa United (2010) about a bunch of underprivileged kids travelling to attend the Football World Cup in South Africa; and The Constant Gardner (2005) which was technically a spy thriller set in Africa; and a few I don’t remember since I forgot to note them down. You could say I was in an Africa frame of mind.

So when I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, I had to read another book connected to Africa. However, it was during the Chennai Floods, and while I had a lot of unread books, I didn’t have too many Africa-themed books. While watching gray gloomy days turn into rain-stuffy nights, I felt so restless and helpless that I started reading ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’ (#10), a book I had picked up idly from the library. I was hooked.

After ‘Tea Time’, I had a vague recollection of having picked up some of these No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books during the Book fair held in January 2015. I got them out and read them in whatever order possible. So, I read ‘Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party’ (#12) and ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’ (#6) back to back. I rearranged the events in my head.

Having finished whatever I had in stock, I turned to Amazon. I was finishing them at the rate of one book a day so I need more for my fix. I next read ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ (#5) and ‘Blue Shoes and Happiness’ (#7) in my frail attempt at chronology. Then I gave up and read ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’ (#8) and ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ (#4). By now, Amazon it seems has caught up with me. They have increased the prices and I’d rather wait a bit before ordering from them again since I will ordering more than one or two books.

I have seen when things get too much in life, I turn to Alexander McCall Smith. I saw that with La’s Orchestra and now these books. Of course, finding the sun shining and warm in the book was also a consolation since it was invisible for nearly a month or peeped shyly from behind the clouds. Mostly what I really enjoyed was the humour: I was laughing my head off on probably every page.

It’s so reassuring to come back to Precious Ramotswe and her Watson Grace Makutsi as they solve cases usually based on good sense and intuition. Completing the picture is Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé and later husband and also the ‘best mechanic in the whole of Botswana’ Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, whose apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, are always getting themselves in trouble. Not to speak of Mma Makutsi’s frictions with Charlie and Fanwell. We also follow Mma Makutsi as she finds love in the arms of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti, the owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop and confronts her nemesis in the vilest violet in the whole of Botswana, Violet Sephotho who’s only got 50 percent in her final exams at the esteemed Botswana Secretarial College but who can make Mma Makutsi’s life 100 percent hell. Other characters like the irritating and endearing Mma Potokwani, the matron of the Orphan Farm, who’d do anything to get a freebie for the orphans, Dr. and Mrs. Moffat and, a late entrant, the gentle Mr. Polopetsi add to the general goings on at the shared premises of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The actual drama does not lie so much in the cases that Mma Ramotswe is asked to solve as in the lives of these characters. They are just brilliant.

How come I had missed all of this? How did I come to this series or it came to me so late? I just can’t figure it out. I know we all change but did I change so much since 2007 that what was once boring is so rich and wonderful now? It is a mystery that only Mma Ramotswe can solve.

I have seen the Anthony Minghella-directed TV series based on these books because M used to talk about it. Though I found it a bit devoid of colour – African colours are not pastels by any stretch of the imagination – I enjoyed the series a lot.

Though I haven’t finished reading all the books in the series, it so heartening to know there are more out there. So in 2016, I know what I have to read.

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4 thoughts on “The Idyllic Charm of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

  1. Whoa! Look who’s binge reading. Glad I could be of help 🙂
    I remember reading the first 3 or 4 books of this series way back in 2008. After that I did not pick it up again because, I remember thinking, they became a little monotonous. But I did enjoy McCall Smith’s other works. I read La on your recommendation and I also read the Corduroy Mansions when it was being serialized in the Telegraph.co.uk.

    It’s interesting that you brought up HP. I don’t remember binge reading anything after the HP series. Yeah, go on, judge me 😛

    1. 🙂 How was La’s Orchestra? I started reading Corduroy Mansions because you suggested it! Nah nah, no judging. You are living a busy life, I know, so no judging.

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