- - Wednesday, December 30, 2015


By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon, $24.95, 224 pages

Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, has decided to take a holiday. She had never done it before, and she is unlikely to ever do it again because she found she was busier when she was not working than when she was working.

But Mma Ramotswe allowed herself to be persuaded of her need for time off by her solicitous husband. JLB Matekoni, owner of a local garage, and by Grace Makutsi, her co-director whom she suspected of seeking to expand her authority in the detective agency. And Mma Ramotswe gets off to an unexpectedly dramatic start when she is mugged by a small boy as she heads for morning tea at the President Hotel. The child lives to regret it. His victim’s initial reaction — warning him of an imminent spanking when he tries to coax her into let him guard her little white van — turns into pity when he tells her he is a “rubbish boy” with no home and whose mother is a prostitute.

He is scooped up by Mma Ramotswe who takes him to a local child care agency run by a friend of hers and her holiday is off to a brand new investigation. She pauses to have tea at the hotel but is disapproving of the gossip that dominates the conversation of the ladies on the veranda. Gossip of that kind is not her style and she is beginning to wonder whether a holiday is her style, either. Her doubts increase when a member of her staff confides to her his concern about the competence of Mma Makutsi, who is so passionate about shoes that she talks to them.

The compassionate Mma Ramotswe worries that she is betraying the assistant she is supposed to trust and not even cleaning out her food cupboard soothes her conscience. In fact, her conscience plays an important role in the plot as it always does. Alexander McCall Smith has written another gently philosophical book about his beloved Botswana and the kindly cast of characters who live there. It is a painful moment when Mma Ramotswe discovers that she has misjudged Mma Makutsi and they are both reduced to tears when it becomes clear that a local politician’s reputation has not been sullied after all. There are many cups of red bush tea and slices of homemade fruit cake to soothe them both while JLB Matekoni worries that his wife is overworking.

Meantime, there is the problem of poor little Samuel, the self-declared “rubbish boy,” to be solved, and Mma Ramotswe charges to his rescue when she discovers that while his mother is indeed a prostitute, she is not dead or “late” as they say in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe can do nothing about the woman being dead, but she can investigate the circumstances in which she has taken to prostitution. She meets with Samuel’s mother, Stella, who explains that she believed her 10-year-old son would be less ashamed of her if she were “late” than if she was a prostitute. When Samuel flings himself into his mother’s arms, it becomes clear that whatever she is, he wants her alive.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi then team up to dispose of Violet Sepotho, their local nemesis who has always competed with them in their stamping ground in Gaborone and who is now breaking immigration laws. Violet is no match for the pair of them, and Mma Ramotswe goes home to finish her vacation with a cup of red bush tea. At home, she stops in her gardem to look up at the sky and remembers how her father had told her, “If you look at the sky, the things you need to think about will come into your mind.” She has fond memories of her father and reflects that when she had taken his advice, it had indeed become clear what she had to do.

And she also reflects that she had to clarify her situation with Mma Makutsi whose feelings had been hurt, but she decides against talking about another promotion because of her awareness that her assistant would find some way of achieving it whether Mma Ramotswe liked it or not. She decided she would remain silent “for after all, it is perfectly possible to be both silent and grateful at one and the same time.’

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

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