- - Thursday, November 14, 2013


By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95, 256 pages

There are talking shoes and thinking babies and a “modern husbands” class, and yes, it means Alexander McCall Smith is back in his beloved world of Botswana and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Mma Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” head of the agency still reigns, but she is preoccupied by an additional member of the cast in the small but important person of Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti, the newly born son of her assistant, Mma Makutsi, now promoted to associate detective. Mma Ramotswe discovers that she missed her assistant more than she expected, despite her subordinate’s bossiness and her inclination to have conversations with her shoes. So Itumelang joins the staff as part of a new personnel file labeled “babies,” and his mother is back on the job a few days after giving birth. Fortunately, Itumelang is a quiet baby, which, his mother explains, is because he is thinking. She can tell when he is thinking, she says firmly, and Mma Ramotswe observes with her usual tact that it is better for babies to be thinking than crying.

Mr. McCall Smith indulges in several delightful plot twists in his latest portrayal of life in the land where he was born and that obviously has a hold on his heart. There is emphasis on the importance of people being kind to each other, which is one of the author’s favorite topics.

In “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon,” he emphasizes the attachment between Mma Ramotswe and her husband, garage owner J.L.B. Matekoni, who demonstrates his affection by enrolling in the course for husbands run by the most unpleasant woman Mr. McCall Smith has ever written about. Mr. Matekoni doesn’t think much of the class or its teacher, but he does go home and try to cook dinner for the first time. In a hilarious scene, Mma Ramotswe has to explain to her perplexed husband that his favorite mashed potatoes must be cooked first. His second culinary venture is with sausages and what he calls “the red beans that grow in cans.” His wife is greatly touched by such devotion, as she should be.

Not that she is neglecting her detective work. She is still dipping into the works of Clovis Anderson, whom she considers her inspiration as a great American investigator, for advice on how to solve a case of legal identity and the mystery of who is leaving malicious messages in the brand new beauty salon of Mma Sereti, whose face creams have been unjustly denounced as dangerous to the skin. In between, Mma Ramotswe visits friends who ply her with homemade sultana cake that has more than its fair share of sultanas, and frets about local wrongdoing, although she remains tolerant even of those of whose behavior she cannot approve.

The author is at his most hilarious when he tells of mischievous doings in Botswana, such as how Mma Makutsi’s husband, Phuti, used a dead snake in the attic as a device to bring about the departure of an especially temperamental aunt. Phuti’s assurances that the cobra in the attic had gone did not persuade his aunt to leave even when the snake’s skin was found. She fled home to the glee of Mma Makutsi, who knew that Phuti had told the truth about the snake being gone. Its demise was proved by the fact that still bulging inside its skin was a dead rat that had proved too large for the cobra to swallow

There is also the touching story of how Mma Makutsi washes Mma Ramotswe’s muddy feet after she has plodded through a “red brown sea” to get to the Makutsi home. As they sit together and Mma Makutsi offers her advice on a new case, Mma Ramotswe realizes how moved she is by the gesture and how much she has missed her assistant now promoted to associate.

“She wanted to say we are back again in the team that has always worked so well. She wanted to say you were only away for a very short time, but I’ve missed you so much. I’ve missed your odd remarks, I’ve missed your talking shoes. I’ve missed everything.”

But she doesn’t say such things — “For once again she sensed that our heart is not always able to say what it wants to say and frequently has to content itself with less.”

Philosophy of the gentlest nature has always been predominant in Mr. McCall Smith’s books, especially those based in Botswana, about which he clearly has the fondest of memories. Even the troubles that are brought to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for solution are resolved by understanding and not anger.

In a partnership of contentment, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi sit in the twilight and regard their world in silence. “As night embraced Botswana, the red glow in the sky faded, yet still seemed to be there, somehow, well after it had gone.” This is vintage Mr. McCall Smith.

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

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