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.