Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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Rating: B+/ After her father dies and leaves her a small fortune’s worth of cattle, independent, no-nonsense Precious Ramotswe sells the livestock and single-handedly starts up her own detective agency with the money. People underestimate and try to undermine Precious at every turn, but her quick wit and ingenuity eventually make fools of them all. But she finds herself out of her depth while investigating her first major case, the disappearance of a little boy thought to have been snatched by witch doctors.

This book came highly recommended by my mother, who has read and enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s entire Precious Ramotswe series and whom I asked to find me something lighter to read while I was going through a mental health crisis. On the basis of the mystery elements, this book really isn’t that great; even dealing with the concept of a missing child, the stakes never really seem to be all that high.

In fact, one never gets the impression that Precious is in that much danger at all, and the outcome of the way the mystery is resolved is a little on the underwhelming side. However, the setting of this book and the relationships between the characters are nothing less than delightful. Precious is a wonderful heroine; strong but vulnerable, compassionate but unwilling to take shit from anybody.

A plus-sized woman, Precious refuses to mope around and count carbs, instead embracing all of herself and setting out to help the inhabitants of her small African community- for a price, of course. It’s nice to see a character who is overweight but not defined by their heaviness or consumed by shame and self-loathing. The setting of this story is vibrant and real, a beautiful but dangerous terrain where alligators, lions, and other dangerous predators are a fact of life.

Precious’ interactions with the other characters are charming and often funny and the book’s smaller mysteries are often entertainingly solved by Precious’ intuition and willingness to get her hands a little dirty (you can’t read the passage where she slits a crocodile’s belly open to look for the remains of her client’s missing husband and say the woman doesn’t have guts, no pun intended.)

While I found The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to be captivating as a character study and an entertaining look into life in a unique and fascinating culture, I had some problems with the way the main case involving the missing boy was handled. First of all, Precious makes no effort to talk to the child’s parents to gain possibly crucial information and clues, preferring to go into the case blindly. I know that Precious Ramotswe is not a law enforcement officer, so she obviously would do things in a different manner as a private investigator than she would as a cop.

But talking to the missing kid’s parents before going traipsing into the bush looking for him is just common sense. I also found it highly puzzling and frustrating that after finding what could be incriminating evidence in the form of a child’s knuckle bone, she drops the case that involves a little boy who is in danger and possibly even dead to solve a much more mundane case concerning a doctor who might or might not be on drugs.

It seems that for a character as seemingly intelligent and savvy as Precious, they have some moments of inconsistency that you think would be a no-brainer for someone with half her smarts. Why wouldn’t you speak to a missing child’s parents before you searched for him, anyway? That is just common sense. In fact, the small, humorous mysteries Precious solves are a lot more interesting than her search for the little boy, which ends on a rather hollow and unsatisfactory note.

However, in spite of some of the plot issues, the character of Precious and the barren yet gorgeous world she inhabits make the book fully worth picking up. In fact, the landscape of Africa is almost a protagonist in it’s own right, it’s ruggedness and character standing out on every page with only a few well-chosen details. Instead of info dumping endlessly about what this landscape looks like and what emotions it ought to invoke in us, Alexander McCall Smith captivates us with his gift for language and characterization of both his protagonist and his setting.

I would definitely pick up the next book in this series, although I hope they improve some of the mystery elements, which were a little on the weak side here. Precious is definitely a character I would like to read more about, and I want to see how her relationships with the supporting characters grow and develop. Overall, this was a perfect light read for me while I was in a fairly bad place mentally, and I think other people will like it as much as I did, especially if they like humorous, character-driven stories with a strong sense of place and community.

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