A review of The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Many years ago, when I was pretending to be a science fiction writer, I got to know a famous figure in the genre. Though he himself never admitted as much, I was told that he had worked himself through a prestigious college in the 1950s by turning out shelves-full of sci-fi novels at a penny a word. He rented an office near campus and would show up every weekday morning at 9, remove the cover of his typewriter, and begin typing — nonstop, and without hesitation — until precisely noon. At that point, he would recover the typewriter and leave for lunch and his afternoon classes. Now, some four decades later, I’m inclined to believe that story, because he is credited with having published a total of more than 300 books, a fair number of them award-winners.
Alexander McCall Smith must be a little like that sci-fi writer. Not a lot — just a little, just in the ease with which he manages to write. After all, he has published a total of just 72 books: 36 novels, 21 children’s books, 3 short story collections, and 12 academic texts. But, to give the guy a break, during most of his 64 years he was employed full-time as a teacher of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and other universities. In fact, Smith is renowned worldwide as an expert in the field of medical ethics. By comparison, the sci-fi author I alluded to above has worked full-time as a writer ever since graduating from college.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi. Grace graduated from the local secretarial school with an unprecedented grade of 97 percent on her final exam — and she never lets anyone, and I mean anyone, walk into the office without learning about it.
Here, for example, is a typical comment by Mma Makutsi on a statement by Mma Potokwane, Mma Ramotswe’s friend, who was despairing of her life at the time:
“Nobody is useless,” she said heatedly, “and you are less useless than nobody else, Mma. Definitely.” This remark was greeted with silence while Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane had tried to work out what it meant. The spirit in which it was made, though, was clear enough, and Mma Potokwane simply thanked her.”
In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are confronted with a series of surprises: the completely unexpected visit of their idol, Clovis Andersen of Muncie, Indiana, author of The Principles of Private Detection; the shocking dismissal of Mma Ramotswe’s good friend, Mma Potokwane, as matron of the orphan farm; and the arrest of Fanwell, a young man who apprenticed with Mma Ramotswe’s husband (“the finest mechanic in Botswana”), Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and now works for him as a certified mechanic. Each of these story lines moves along at the measured pace of life in the near-desert of Botswana. As always, of course, Mma Ramotswe solves every mystery and rights every wrong, but this time she receives timely help from her hero, Clovis Andersen.
If there’s a single word that sums up the novels in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it’s “charming.” These are books full of gentle humor, folk wisdom, and a view of life and the world that is both generous and optimistic. However, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection dwells more on the story’s setting, exploring the land, its history, and its people more in-depth than in previous books in the series. In the background — always in the background, but unmistakably present — are poverty, the AIDS epidemic, and the tragic events that unfold with alarming frequency in Botswana’s neighbors.
If you haven’t read any of the previous 12 books, you might find The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection to be a good place to start.
My 21 favorite mystery and thriller writers
Over the course of the past three and a half years, I’ve reviewed well over 100 mysteries and thrillers. A great many of these novels were written by well-established authors with long lists of widely read books to their names. In every case of the 21 writers listed below, I’ve read several of their books (some of them before I launched this blog in January 2010).
If 21 seems a large number of “favorite” writers, consider all the names you won’t find on this list. Those include several — Ross McDonald, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, for example — whom I last read years ago. Also excluded are the potboilers and slapdash works by the likes of James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Val McDermid, and Robert B. Parker. I read most of these when younger and am happy to leave them behind.
What follows here is a list of links to my reviews of individual mysteries or thrillers by the 21 prolific authors I most enjoy. The list is in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who writes beautifully researched stories about soldier-spy John Wells, featuring plots centered on contemporary military and foreign policy issues.
The Drop, by Michael Connelly
Most of Connelly’s 30 novels to date center on the life and work of Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.
Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie
Crombie, a Texan who spends extended periods in Great Britain, has written 15 English detective novels that read as though she was born and bred in England.
The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming
A Briton who has written superior six spy novels, Cumming is often mentioned as a spiritual heir to John Le Carre.
Buried Secrets, by Joseph Finder
Finder is the American author of 11 beautifully crafted thrillers. So far, just two of his novels feature Nick Heller in what appears to be the beginning of a series.
Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
Since 1976, Furst has written 16 historical spy novels, most of them set in Europe between 1933 and 1944. Furst’s work recreates the mood and atmosphere of the Continent in that era like few others.
Believing the Lie, by Elizabeth George
An American, George has written 18 complex and well-written novels featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (plus four other novels).
Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard
Goddard is an English novelist whose two dozen excellent novels are typically set in rural towns, with the origins of their plots found decades in the past.
The Racketeer, by John Grisham
Most of Grisham’s 26 crime novels are set in the American South and involve lawyers and legal shenanigans. He has also written 7 other books since he began writing full-time in 1989.
John Le Carre
Though I wasn’t impressed with Le Carre’s recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, I can’t help but include him in this list. I’m now immersed in his latest work, A Delicate Truth, which strikes me as on a par with his earlier, much praised novels. (To be reviewed soon.)
The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell
A Swede, Mankell’s 11 Kurt Wallander crime stories are dark, complex, and often politically tinged novels that reflect his experience as a long-time progressive activist. He has also written 25 other books.
The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo
Nesbo, a Norwegian, has written 10 complexly plotted mystery novels about the troubled Detective Harry Hole as well as 8 other novels.
Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
All but two of Paretsky’s 17 novels feature private detective V. I. (Victoria) Warshawski, who tackles Chicago’s corrupt establishment without compunction.
The Cut, by George Pelecanos
Pelecanos, best known for his writing on the HBO series “The Wire,” is the author of 21 novels, most of them gritty detective stories set on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Silken Prey, by John Sandford
Sandford has written 23 crime novels with the word “Prey” in their titles, all featuring Lucas Davenport, an independently wealthy senior investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Sandford has written 13 additional novels, 7 of them featuring Virgil Flowers, a colorful member of Davenport’s team.
Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
Of Slaughter’s 17 books, 14 are haunting crime stories set in Georgia about the lives of a set of interrelated characters in Atlanta and fictional Grant County.
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
Smith’s 14 adult novels (so far) about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, comprise just one of many series in a list of works that’s almost too numerous to count. The man must turn them all out through automatic writing in his sleep!
Three Stations: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith
The 8 fascinating novels in Smith’s Arkady Renko series about the Soviet, later Russian crime investigator are among a total of 27 he’s written under several pseudonyms.
Victory Square, by Olen Steinhauer
Steinhauer, an American who has spent extensive periods in Eastern Europe, is the author of a brilliant five-book series about the members of the murder squad in the capital of a fictional country in that region. More recently, the young author has written three thrillers about an American spy and his fictional agency.
Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh
A former Los Angeles police officer, Wambaugh has written 16 novels and 5 nonfiction accounts about crime and crimefighters since 1971. Nearly all his novels are police procedurals set in L.A., bringing the authentic experience on the streets to life.
Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake
Writing under his own name as well as 16 pseudonyms, Westlake produced a total of 111 novels from 1959 until his death in 2008, nearly all of them set in New York City, two of them published posthumously. My favorites are the many humorous caper tales about the sardonic master criminal, John Dortmunder.
In addition to these 21 writers, I’ve read excellent mysteries and thrillers by 12 other authors whose output is more limited either because they’re young and just beginning their careers, they write primarily in other genres, or, in at least the case of Stieg Larsson, they’re dead.
Among the younger writers here that show special promise are Gillian Flynn, Tana French, and Tom Rob Smith.
Following are links to my reviews of individual novels by these 12 authors.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
Disciple of the Dog, by R. Scott Bakker
A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Faithful Place, by Tana French
So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman
The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
Shaman Pass: A Nathan Active Mystery, by Stan Jones
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson
The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
Primitive by Mark Nykanen
Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
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Tagged as Alan Furst, alex berenson, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Cumming, Deborah Crombie, donald e. westlake, Elizabeth George, George Pelecanos, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, John Grisham, John Sandford, Joseph Finder, Joseph Wambaugh, Karin Slaughter, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Connelly, Olen Steinhauer, robert goddard, Sara Paretsky