Botswana's No 1. detective stocks a full cupboard

Mma Ramotswe solves cases with acumen, decency, and fruitcake

Silhouetted against a tower of his books at a Costco near Seattle, Alexander McCall Smith appears not the least bit aware of the dichotomy. This gentleman, dressed in a dark jacket and hunter-green tie patterned with giraffes, is groomed more for his professorial chair at the University of Edinburgh than the fluorescent boxdom of a discount store. He quickly stands and extends his hand every time shoppers halt their carts laden with T-shirts, electric fans, and patio furniture to buy his book and have it signed. "Thank you most kindly," he murmurs in his soft-spoken lilt.

All these shoppers have heard of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Smith's bestselling series about Mma Precious Ramotswe, a self-professed detective in Botswana. And many readers marvel at the greater dichotomy: how such a proper Scotsman writes so convincingly in the voice of a queen-size traditional African woman.

On this day, he is promoting "The Full Cupboard of Life," the fifth book in the series (see review). More than 4 million copies of his books have been published in English, and translation rights have been sold for 29 languages.

In each slim 200-page volume, Mma Ramotswe solves her clients' problems, mostly conditions of dishonored or suspicious hearts, while adhering to courtesies of "old Botswana morality," where reason and conversation are best prefaced with a cup of redbush tea and fruitcake. This not at all diminishes the acumen of Mma Ramotswe. She outwits crooked businessmen, outmaneuvers scandalous cads, and discreetly mollifies hurts and worries.

In Mma Ramotswe, Smith has created an ambassador of decency who is cutting him a huge swath of fans. His mail runs the gamut from Laura Bush to the rock musician Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. He hears from children and octogenarians. One psychiatrist wrote that he prescribes the books to his depressed patients.

A Costco shopper chokes back tears at the table. "Your novels, they ... they reach my heart." Smith says only in the US has he encountered readers who express such emotion. "They tell me how reading about Mma Ramotswe helped them get through a difficult time. The international news is so disturbing and confusing that some Americans feel a bit traumatized. So the concept of a world which is populated by good people who have a very clear concept of right and wrong is comfortable. It attracts people."

Each book returns to a cast of four main characters: Mma Ramotswe, her pedantic assistant, her mild-mannered fiancé, and the formidable head of a children's orphanage. But there are really five prevailing characters, McCall insists. The fifth is Botswana itself, he says, "where one might look out up to the hill and watch the thin wisps of cloud, no more than that, float slowly across the sky; or listen to the cattle bells and the chorus of the cicadas. This was what it meant to live in Botswana. When the rest of the world might work itself into a frenzy of activity, one might still sit, in the space before a house with ochre walls ... and talk about very small things."

"Writers write of loss, and mine is this beautiful landscape which was imprinted on me at an early age," says Zimbabwe-born Smith, who frequented Botswana during his childhood. His family returned to Scotland when he was 17. Now, he makes a yearly trip back to Botswana, where he was instrumental in founding a law school.

Eight books are slated for the No. 1 Detective series. What will Smith do with his iconic heroine at the end? "I couldn't let anything happen to Mma Ramotswe," he avows, his blue eyes lively behind trendy tortoise-shell glasses. "I can't take her over Victoria Falls near Botswana," he adds, referring cheerily to Sherlock Holmes's famous demise. "Though even if she did slip over the falls, I believe she would float over, land in the foam at the bottom, then bob to the surface, being a traditional lady."

While he ponders how to conclude his series, Smith is taking a three-year unpaid leave from his post as a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh. He still serves UNESCO as a member of the International Bioethics Commission, and he plays bassoon in an ensemble called "The Really Terrible Orchestra." By the end of the year, he will launch another series, The Sunday Philosophy Club. Truer to the mystery genre, it follows the escapades of Isabel Dalhousie, a witty moral philosopher and editor of the fictional Journal of Applied Ethics.

Even while on the road, Smith writes his serial novel, "44 Scotland Street," currently appearing daily in The Scotsman newspaper and to be released as a book next year. All his stories are leaping onto film. Anthony Minghella, director of "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," is focused on the charming Mma Ramotswe.

Downplaying his success as quickly as a Scotsman shuns excess, Smith says his life hasn't changed much, aside from acquiring a 13-year-old custard-colored Mercedes. "At 55, it's too late for me to do anything splashy."

Yet Mma Ramotswe has not only cannonballed into publishing waters, but drenched Botswana in new tourism, and flooded purveyors with skyrocketing redbush tea sales. To which Smith beams, "I think this is jolly!"

Kathryn Renner is a freelance writer in Bellevue, Wash.

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