I had to good fortune to hear Alexander McCall Smith speak at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival earlier this year. One of the themes that recurred was the usefulness of gentle humour in writing. One of the things that is apparent throughout the series is that the very real problems faced by Africa are only obliquely refereed. There is no overarching context, for example, to the story of the labourer in this volume who is a migrant worker afraid of losing his job.
But perhaps not every book needs to lecture us about the impact of capitalism on modern Africa, or the role of multinational corporations, or the impact of the AIDS epidemic (though these have all have all quietly featured). Sometimes, people will listen to gentler voices.
In a sense, these are rather like a medieval morality play. His villains (who are generally quite two dimensional) are like the archetypes of the morality plays. the protagonists would battle the personification of greed, or envy, or whatever the play was about.
The idea may seem ludicrous to to a modern audience, but they had a specific purpose. They imparted their messages by making the audience look inwards. To me, reading these is a similar experience. If we are concerned about something, how do we act ethically in response? If we are appalled by corporate greed, how do we respond? Yes, there needs to be a political response, but there are differing levels of consciousness about what is required – if anything. If we admire the gentle pace of life with some longing, are we as a society too invested in acquisition?
I was surprised that I enjoyed the first in the series. I haven’t enjoyed them all equally but they are all, as intended, full of quiet, gentle humour that prompt a little self-examination. I hope that there’s always a place for that.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection continues the exploits of Mmas Ramotswe and Makutsi, punctuated by tea-drinking and cake-munching. This time, Grace Makutsi and new husband Phuti Radiphuti arrange to have a new house built, but the builder seems too slick to be trusted.
Meanwhile, trouble looms at the orphanage. Mma Potokwane, opposing a move catering into a large and impersonal dining hall, is unseated by the new head of the board who proposed it. Finally, into Gaborone comes Clovis Andersen, whose Principles of Private Detection has been their constant source of mentorship. He too carries a secret.
Like the denizens of Tlokweng Road, the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency is drifting into quiet domesticity. We have gotten use to Grace Makutsi’s talking shoes, the frequent breaks for tea and cake, and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s old fashioned common sense.
But there’s also something to be said for comfortable familiarity. For fans of the series, it’s the literary equivalent of a nice fire, dressing gown and slippers, and a nice cup of hot chocolate.