The prolific Alexander McCall Smith writes more novels in a year than most Americans read. Not only does he keep up with the annual goings-on in Gabarone, Botswana, but he simultaneously juggles three other series – his “Isabel Dalhousie” novels, the “44 Scotland Street” books, and the “Portuguese Irregular Verbs” series (which I’d somehow completely missed) – as well as turning out children’s books (apparently tossed off in lieu of a Saturday nap).
But the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” mysteries remain his best-written and most consistently satisfying works. The Double Comfort Safari Club gives readers a chance to check in on the more compassionate, reflective world of the house on Zebra Drive and the ongoing business concerns of Speedy Motors and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. A mystery or two may be cleared up in the process, but for most fans, a missing sock would be reason enough for a visit with Precious Ramotswe.
By now, readers are so familiar with the books’ genial, comforting presences that reviewing them is pretty much beside the point. (The TV version also has come in for accolades. In March, the HBO series, directed by the late Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella, won a prestigious Peabody Award.)
Civility is usually paramount in a McCall Smith novel. And in Botswana, traditional ways of life may be fading, but as Precious’s husband, J.L.B. Matekoni, notes, “even when people were rude – and some degree of human rudeness was inevitable – they were rude in a fairly polite way.”
If you’re looking for intricately plotted murders set in southern Africa, you might enjoy Michael Stanley’s “Inspector Kubu” series. There are no deadly goings-on facing Mma Ramotswe or her prickly, shoe-loving assistant, Mma Makutsi. As with 2009’s “Tea Time for the Traditionally Built,” the biggest drama in “The Double Comfort Safari Club” occurs within the staff of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
At first, the office is preoccupied with “teapots and efficiency” – specifically, whether the larger teapot should be used for brewing bush or regular tea. This question causes concerns about fair play in both detective and assistant detective. Then a delivery truck backs into Phuti Rhadiphuti, Grace Makutsi’s fiancé, and his ferocious aunt won’t let Grace visit him at the hospital. That lady proves so intractable that even Precious Ramotswe may not be able to locate her good side.
Of course, there are always cases to be solved. A friend has asked Precious to investigate whether her husband is having an affair, while another client was tricked out of his house by a gold digger. (The resolution of that one owes more to coincidence than any self-respecting plot twist should admit to, but is admittedly in keeping with the books’ benevolent worldview.) Then there’s the American woman who wanted to leave a bequest to a kind safari guide – except that she couldn’t remember his name, or the name of the camp where he worked.
While that might sound like a rather impossible task to those of us who have not studied “The Rules of Detection” by Clovis Anderson, Precious doesn’t consider the matter hopeless. “It would be a good case, she thought – there were few duties in life that were more enjoyable than that of informing another person of some piece of good fortune.” More worrisome to her is what to wear to the Okavanga Delta, khaki pants not being terribly flattering to those of a traditional build. “The appropriate garment for the traditionally built woman was a long skirt, or a large dress, which could flow around her in a way that enhanced her traditional figure.”
As always, kindness is paramount, and cynicism never takes root in a world where even overpriced souvenirs can be imbued with meaning: “unnecessary purchases, perhaps, but tokens of love were never unnecessary, never pointless.”
As she raises her two adopted children, Precious, meanwhile, contemplates teaching a class on the old ways and songs of Botswana. It’s easy to imagine series fans the world over signing up for “Mma Ramotswe’s Refresher Course in the Old Botswana Culture.” In the meantime, all sides of contemporary political and religious spectrums would do well to memorize the title of the novel’s first chapter: “You do not change people by shouting at them.”
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.