Precious Ramotswe inherits her father's cattle herd and sells it to start a new life. The options are limited for a woman in Botswana. She sets out on an uncharted course, opening the first private detective agency run by a woman. At least in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is a commanding figure. She's stout, observant and reasons with precise logic. She would have made a great politician. Instead, she buys a house, an office, hires a secretary, installs a telephone - and sits down to wait for clients. It seems she's likely to shut it all down within a week.
Instead, clients come calling. The result is a series of vignettes of her clients' problems and their resolutions. There are wandering husbands, rebellious teen-age children [are there any other kind?] and a missing, probably murdered child. Justice, although never mentioned by either McCall Smith or Mma Ramotswe, is an important element throughout these episodes. Justice and the value of being an African. McCall is knowledgeable about Southern Africa and its people. He imparts that understanding with marvelous skill. His Scottish background never intrudes or distracts. Except perhaps in one of Mma's more bizarre cases. The Scots treasure their reputation for producing fine doctors. One of Mma Ramotswe's mysteries is the occasionally inept doctor. It is clearly the highlight of this superb book.
Mma Ramotswe, in establishing her unique agency, might be thought to have shed her personal life. After all, she had a brief, unhappy marriage. Men are to be watched, controlled, and manipulated in ways to prevent their wandering. Yet, as might be expected, there is a man in her town whose value transcends the image dominated by wandering husbands or lovers. He knows her worth and she his, but his stumbling proposal is rebuffed. There's no strain on the friendship, however, and it becomes clear the two will be useful to each other in the future.
McCall Smith has accomplished something very special with this book. It cries out for a sequel [of which there are now four] for many reasons. It certainly shatters the long-standing image of the "detective" novel with its stacks of corpses, inept policemen and implausible characters. Mma Ramotswe is nothing more than a capable woman without special powers. She simply focusses on the problem at hand, keeps distractions at bay and refuses to deal in absolutes. McCall Smith's powers of characterisation, locale and story place him far above the traditional examples of the "mystery" genre. He is compelling reading for anyone. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]