By Ian G. Wilson
Precious and Grace, the new No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel from Alexander McCall Smith, is what I would call a “polite” mystery. No violent deaths (in fact, no deaths at all), very civil conversation, no tension that makes your stomach turn knots, absolutely no profanity, and no graphic description of people being beat up or maimed. This sounds like the book doesn’t have much of interest going on, and yet, when I delved into it, I found myself charmed by the Botswana setting, the characters, and the “problem solving” that the Agency specializes in.
Alexander McCall Smith was born in southern Africa and taught law at the University of Botswana, so he knows his setting well. But it is the people, and not the lay of the land, that he chooses to concentrate on. The characters are so likeable that it is hard to believe that everyone in Botswana is like them, but they represent the soul of the country, the best of its spirited people. When Susan Peters, the Agency’s client, speaks, it may just be that she is mirroring the thoughts of Smith himself:
“‘I decided to come back to Botswana . . . because I’d been so happy here. I wanted to see the place I loved so much. I wanted to see some of the people.’”
I had been away from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for some time, having read only the first couple of books, and then letting Smith hammer away at his keyboard and produce reams of fiction without turning my attention to any of it. Since starting his mysteries set in Botswana, he has written no fewer than four additional series of books, all with different settings and characters. Having read Precious and Grace, I am eager to return to the earlier novels and their easygoing meanderings through life in Africa.
This novel concentrates on the relationship between the founder and director of the Agency, Precious Ramotswe, and her office manager, Grace Makutsi. Mma Ramotswe (most of the adult characters are consistently referred to with their Setswana titles of respect—Mma for women and Rra for men) struggles with the ambitions and plain speaking of Mma Makutsi, her desire to become more than a mere secretary. Mma Ramotswe is sensitive to Grace’s intelligence and need to feel important, and she recognizes her extreme competence, but Grace’s habit of elevating herself within the firm when interviewing clients rankles her. Mma Makutsi also makes snap judgements about people, and her tactlessness gets the Agency into trouble with one of the subjects of their inquiries. In one of her meditative moments Precious thinks:
“Mma Ramotswe made a sympathetic clucking noise. ‘You are right, Rra,’ she said. ‘It is hard to be junior staff.’
“Unless you were Mma Makutsi, she thought. If you were Mma Makutsi, you simply promoted yourself regularly until you ended up as joint co-director, or whatever her current position was—Mma Ramotswe had rather lost track of Mma Makutsi’s stellar ascent.”
Precious is anything but tactless. She often has conversations going on inside her head about the value of seeing the other person’s side of an issue, and her charity always wins out. This is perhaps the most endearing trait of the series, that the main character is such a nice person. She always comes through as the unflaggingly courteous, ethical, and sympathetic voice of the story (though the novel is in third person, it is limited to Mma Ramotswe’s point of view, and we follow her thoughts and actions throughout the course of the narrative). She represents what she sees as the Old Botswana, which is much like the “old days” of any country, when life was simpler, less hectic and less technological, and people looked out for one another.
I earlier referred to “problem solving” as the basis of the novel’s plot, and this is indeed what Mma Ramotswe does, both personally and through her business. The big mystery surrounds Susan, a Canadian woman, who has returned to Botswana, the land of her birth, wanting to reconnect with her old house and with Rosie, the governess who looked after her. With nothing but a few vague childhood memories, it seems there is little to go on, but the results of the investigation are surprising and ultimately are about forgiveness.
There are other little problems which need resolution. Fanwell, a young man employed in the garage operated by Precious’ husband (invariably called Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, even by his wife) accidentally hits a stray dog and brings it to the Agency hoping it can be useful in investigations. Mma Ramotswe is anxious to return the animal to its home, but they don’t know where it came from, and an attempt to release it near the area where it was run over only leads to its returning to the Agency. The solution of this problem is characteristically happy. If you, like me, are fond of animals, you may particularly enjoy this subplot:
“Mma Ramotswe looked at the window. It needed cleaning, as the dust had built up. But there was the branch of the acacia tree outside—the branch upon which those two doves so often sat. Did they not have souls? Those loyal spouses? Did they not mourn when one of them died, and how could you mourn if you had no soul? And if birds had souls, then how much more likely it was that dogs did too—dogs who, if they could talk, would have so much to say to us about the world and its smells.”
And then there is the issue of Mr. Polopetsi, a part time chemistry teacher who puts his technical skills to use for the Agency. He has naïvely bought into “The Fat Cattle Club,” a pyramid scheme promising large returns to investors, and he is busily trying to induce everyone he knows to join him in the endeavor. It is obvious to Precious that Mr. Polopetsi has been misled, but how can she carefully extract him from the results of his own folly and repay those whom he has convinced to put their money into the club?
Along the way are conversations, deceptive in their simplicity, but full of meaning. Talks between Precious and her husband, between Precious and her best friend, Sylvia Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage, and, of course, between Precious and Grace. There is much discussion of how Botswana used to be and much news-sharing (it never comes across as vulgar gossip). And through these talks, we come to know the people in Precious’ world, and perhaps the Botswana that Smith himself remembers.
Precious and Grace was published in 2016 by Pantheon Books. It is available at Greenville Public Library.