- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2010


By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $24.95, 224 pages


Investigations in the blissful Botswana world of Mma Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency range from a woman complaining that her husband is cheating on her to a mysterious legacy left to an unnamed guide by a visiting American.

Yes, she’s still going strong, that lady of “traditional build” working with her peevish, shoe-obsessed assistant Mma Rakutski, who is competing with the predatory aunt of her fiance, Phuti Radiphuti, over who should take care of him as he recuperates from surgery.

It’s the McCall Smith mixture as only he can stir it up, and once again he conjures up a scenario in which his characters think the best of each other and only occasionally is there an outburst of malice, let alone crime. Mr. J.L.B Mateloni, husband of Precious Ramotswe, shares the philosophy of his wife whose solution to problems brought to her attention always leans toward a kindly analysis.

For Mma Ramotswe, it must always be taken into account that people are basically nice even when they clearly aren’t, an attitude that makes her Mr. McCall Smith’s most lovable creation. Careful consideration of trivial events is the name of the game in Gaborone as demonstrated when Mr. J.L.B. Mateloni witnesses a suspicious encounter between two local acquaintances that suggests to him they might be having an affair. It is typical of his thinking that what puzzles him most is “how anyone could plant a kiss on the lips of a woman who was always talking?”

What makes this reflection on Mr. Matelone’s part so entertaining is that it means he has inadvertently solved a mystery currently preoccupying his wife in her capacity as a detective. The plot stands neatly on its head when Mr. Herbert Matekele confides in Mma Ramotswe that he had begun to doubt his wife, the same woman who is accusing him of infidelity. And that puts an end to Mma Matekele’s lies about her husband.

The inner thoughts of Mma Ramotswe clearly reflect the author’s attitude toward the country where he lived for years and helped set up a law school. His characters are portrayed as the backbone of Botswana, and in the course of a soliloquy by Mma Ramotswe, she muses on the bleak comparison between Botswana and a country where people didn’t help each other and “make things go.”

“Nothing would work and it would be like living full time at some remote cattle post where there was only sky and bush and the sweet smell of the cattle, where water would have to be fetched from remote wells; where the bucket winding mechanisms would eventually fail; where the roads would disappear because there would be no tractors and no graders to repair them. There were places like that in Africa - where the wind blew in dusty eddies about decaying buildings and broken masonry … where people had simply given up. That was not Botswana of course, but one had to be watchful.”

Given that kind of philosophy, there is nothing surprising about how careful Mma Ramotswe is in working out how best to resolve problems without hurting people.

Which is how she works out the disposition of the American legacy and who should benefit from it. There is hilarity in the portrayal of the two women on a trip to the bush, where Mma Ramotswe comforts her nervous assistant by telling her to bang with a saucepan to frighten away lions. This advice is followed by a middle-of-the-night moment when Mma Ramotswe hears a “curious sniffling sound” outside that turns out to be “a fully grown lion an arm’s length away” staring at her “with the moon in his eyes.”

Fortunately, the lion has no interest in Mma Ramotswe and her assistant sleeps through the whole thing. And there is a characteristic McCall Smith happy ending for Mma Makutsi. Her marital worries are solved when the formidable Mma Potokwane, manager of a local orphan farm, takes on the unkind aunt who is standing between Mma Makutsi and her convalescent fiance. Mma Potokwane reacts to the problem with a snort that reminds Mma Ramotswe “of the sound that a she-elephant makes when warning an intruder off her young.”

The aunt, described as looking like a melon because of the shape of her head, shrivels up when confronted by Mma Potokwane, who again does what Mma Ramotse thinks of as her elephant imitation “ears flapping out as an elephant will when it prepares to charge.”

The aunt collapses and on her Mma Potokwane bestows the kind of lecture that is pure McCall Smith.Explaining to the aunt why she must not dominate her nephew, Mma Potokwane declares, “Love without freedom is like a fire without air. A fire without air goes out. Do you understand me?”

Mma Ramotswe reflects that the aunt understood, yet did not really understand.

“There were many people like that. They understood but did not understand all at the same time. It was a big problem.”

But Mma Ramotswe is prepared to take on all the “big problems” of Botswana.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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