- - Thursday, October 16, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE HANDSOME MAN’S DE LUXE CAFE
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, $24.95, 240 pages

In this treat of a book there are talking shoes advising their wearer on what not to eat and there is the boundless philosophizing of Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency of Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith is back to regale readers with more of how life should be and is lived in Mma Ramotswe’s gentle world, even when that life requires coping with the Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe, an establishment owned by Mma Makutsi, who is also Mma Ramotswe’s partner in the detective agency. Fighting for her equality as a partner and planning a new cafe with an exotic chef brings out the worst in Mma Makutsi, who is far less sweet-natured than her partner. Even Mma Ramotswe has to rebuke her, which is rare.

As Mma Ramotswe reflects as she walks by her mokopi tree, in her life there are two kinds of days: those in which too much happened and those in which too little happened. The development of a new cafe and the discovery by her husband Mr J.L.B Makeloni that he has to fire one of his mechanics because his garage business is not doing enough business is enough to convince her that things are going to be too busy.

Of course, they take that course because Mma Ramotswe is almost incapable of being unkind, so she decides to hire Charlie the lazy mechanic to help out with her detective business, although that isn’t doing too well, either. Charlie isn’t as grateful as he might be, especially when he finds himself having to take orders from Mma Makutsi, who thinks he is silly. Mma Ramotswe has to step in to restore civility and goes so far as to make Charlie an apprentice detective on a new case.

Unfortunately, he does not reassure the Makutsi doubts about his ability to handle a the mystery of a missing woman who has lost her memory. Mma Makutsi doesn’t believe her, and Charlie discovers the facts by accident when he is lured into playing driver in the office car for an attractive young woman. It turns out to be one of the detective agency’s more complicated problems, involving not only wife-beating but the disaster which overtakes the new store when the cook turns out to be far from a chef, or even a cook, for that matter. It is at that point that Mma Makutsi receives a communication from her shoes that says, in effect, don’t eat that food.

It is Phuti, the furniture-owning husband of Mma Makutsi, who voices strong doubts about the menu that ranges between “small mouth” and “big mouth” as well as “the dish of yesterday” and he is proved right. As the food is served, she hears a voice from her feet. “I wouldn’t touch that, Boss!” warn the red shoes with the rosettes. “This sauce is made of lies” — and it is. The so-called chef has made none of the food, and the restaurant is promptly given a dreadful review, urging “Just don’t go there.” Poor Mma Makutsi is crushed and, as usual, it is Mma Ramotswe who comes to her rescue.

What they should do, she suggests, is call the restaurant “The Ladies Afternoon Cafe” and serve scones and cake and redbush tea, which she says is sure to attract all the ladies in the village and maybe a handsome man or two for a deluxe touch. In the end, all works out. Mma Makutsi is saved and even Charlie is given another job as a file clerk, although he calls himself a “paralegal.”

The tale is vintage McCall Smith, and you don’t get any better than that for fluffy philosophy and fun. There is little unkindness in his characters and almost none in his plots and yet much of what he writes makes remarkable sense despite the fact that most of these are people you will never meet because they are too nice. If Mr. McCall Smith did not exist, we would probably have to invent him as a tranquilizer with a built-in sense of humor.

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

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