Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

Africa’s No. 1 female detective probes the mysteries of the human heart.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built By Alexander McCall Smith Pantheon 212 pp., $23.95

What makes a good mystery? If you’re Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it’s not dark alleyways and danger – at least, not in his most recent title, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

That’s not to say that the traditional trappings of suspense, mistaken identity, and false leads don’t make their appearances. Like the other novels in the series, Smith’s latest offering featuring Precious Ramotswe remains firmly situated in the company of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries.  (Though the body count is significantly lower.) But the real mystery in this story is the enigma of human nature – and the secrets that lurk in the hidden corners of the human heart.

“Tea Time for the Traditionally Built” is actually one of the gentlest of Smith’s stories. There are no witch doctors or blackmail plots. No one is being poisoned.

But don’t think that means that Botswana’s No. 1 female detective is getting off easy. Mma Ramotswe faces her most difficult cases to date in the 10th installment in the series.

First, there’s the proprietor of a local soccer team, who wants Mma Ramotswe to find the culprit behind his team’s inexplicable losing streak. And in a mystery closer to Mma Ramotswe’s own heart, her faithful friend, the iconic tiny white van, has developed some rather alarming symptoms.

The common thread between these cases, of course, is the unknown and often perplexing world of men and men’s preoccupations. Preoccupations like chasing a ball up and down a field, for example, or the inner workings of complex machinery.

Because these intricacies seem beyond her scope of expertise, Mma Ramotswe doubts, at first, that she’s the right person for the job. But as it turns out, her wisdom, intuition, and womanly savvy make her the perfect detective – make that female detective – to uncover the truth.

As Mma Ramotswe pursues the ambitions and deceits of various soccer personalities, her assistant, Grace Makutsi, deals with her own male-female divide.

The insufferable and conniving Violet Sephotho has inveigled her way into a job at Phuti Radiphuti’s Double Comfort Furniture Shop, and Mma Makutsi is convinced that Violet’s intentions are dishonorable. It’s only a matter of time before Violet brings shame upon Phuti’s previously reputable establishment – or, worse, makes off with Phuti himself. But how can Mma Makutsi translate female intuition into something her wide-eyed
fiancé can understand?

In keeping with the genre in which Smith is writing, his latest novel includes plenty of interviews with potential perpetrators and enough false leads to keep the pages turning.

But as is typical for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, most of the action in the book takes place during meandering conversations over generous cups of red bush tea – conversations in which Mma Ramotswe’s observations not only inevitably expose her suspects, but also reveal much about humanity as a whole.

And yet, don’t be fooled by the appearance of an overly simple outcome. What makes “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built” a truly great mystery is Smith’s skill with the exquisitely placed red herring. He’s a master here as well. In other words, take nothing for granted. As Smith’s readers have come to expect, there’s beauty and revelation of one kind or another woven expertly into every line.

Jenny Sawyer is a frequent Monitor reviewer. 

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