- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2011

By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95, 224 pages

The analysis of the soul of a tiny white car is the kind of thing only Alexander McCall Smith can write about and get away with. Yes, she’s back, the inimitable Mma Precious Ramotswe, the product of the amiable imagination of the author with his unalloyed fascination with Botswana, the country where he once lived and taught law in its university. That was before he embarked on the life and times of Mma Ramotswe, the founder and director of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gaborone. She is a lady of “traditional build” as she describes herself and of a remarkably gentle and charitable disposition for a detective.

Mma Ramotswe thinks the best of everyone even those of her customers who have not behaved with the kind of circumspection that she would recommend. She especially thinks well of her kindly husband, Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, a skilled mechanic who runs his own car repair business, and her affection for him is matched by his understanding of her passion for her tiny white car despite his long ago having replaced it with a nice new blue van.

Mr. McCall Smith announces what is ahead when he begins the book with “Mma Ramotswe had by no means forgotten her late white van.” In Botswana, as is the case here in the United States, it should be kept in mind, the word “late” means dead when applied to humans. As far as Mma Ramotswe is concerned, that is how she sees her beloved little van despite the fact that what she acknowledges was its “persistent overloading,” which meant it tilted dangerously on the driver’s side. This contributed to the tiny white van’s demise, but did not diminish the memories of it cherished by its owner.

Recalling all the tiny white van had lived through, Mma Ramotswe decided that “owners of cars may be forgiven for thinking that under the metal there lurks something not all that different from a human soul.”

What stirs such feelings to life in her is that although under the impression that the white van had been turned into scrap metal, there comes the day when she sees it being driven by a new owner and recognizes it by a familiar dent in its side. It might not be kind to suggest she becomes obsessed by the ghost of the white van, but it might be close to accurate.

The book isn’t all about the white van, however. It deals with the forthcoming wedding of Mma Ramotswe’s acid-tongued assistant Grace Makutsi and her passion for shoes. It also dips a toe into morality with the behavior of Charlie, a young mechanic employed by Mr. Matekoni who is reputed to be the father of twins without becoming the husband of their mother.

Mma Ramotswe’s tact in dealing with this situation is remarkable, especially since Charlie turns out to be wrongly accused. His former girlfriend readily admits that Charlie was not her only lover, notes that she is about to marry someone else and adds as a postscript that she is already pregnant again.

Mma Ramotswe earns the eternal gratitude of Charlie, which of course is of help in her reunion with the tiny white van.

In the meantime, she is consulted by an irate local farmer about two slain cows and that investigation, as usual, reveals the unexpected while confirming her conviction that there is a reason for everything and good in everybody. So off she goes and buys Mma Makutsi a new pair of shoes for her wedding and she is not surprised to find that Mr Maketoni has joined Charlie in restoring to her the tiny white van, now running well in its second incarnation. Mma Ramotswe compares her feelings for the van with her late father’s devotion to a battered old hat. She tells herself what a miraculous gift it is “that we have the people we have in this life rather than another.”

This is Mr. McCall Smith at his benevolent best, preaching the most gentle of philosophies and obviously recalling with affection his own memories of Botswana and his years there. He demonstrates the depth of that feeling by describing Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts as she looks toward the Kalahari desert, the darkening sky and the branches of the trees tracing a pattern - “a pattern of such intricacy and delicacy that those standing below might look up and wonder why the world can be so beautiful and yet break the heart.”

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

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