To find out what is going on, call Mma. Ramotswe!

The No.1. Ladies Detective Agency    

By Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, Edinburgh 1998; Random House Anchor Book Paperback, 2002

    Reviewed 1 September 2003 by David P. Stern

    Meet Precious Ramotswe, who owns and operates the first and only detective agency in Botswana. When she inherited from her father a herd of 180 cattle, Precious--"Mma Ramotswe" in the book, an unattached lady--invested all of it in a detective agency. Asked about her unusual occupation, she answers "Why not? Women are the ones who know what is going on... When people see a sign 'NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY' what will they think? They'll think those ladies will know what's going on."

    From this premise evolves a charming collection of gentle stories, about the different cases Mma Ramotswe is asked to solve. A long-lost father who may be an impostor, a husband who disappears during a river baptism, a missing boy, a stolen car, proof of a husband's infidelity... all these, as well as the story of Mma Ramotswe herself, and of her father's stint in the gold mines.

    Like much of Africa, Botswana is a tough neighborhood. Located in the northeast corner of South Africa, on the edge of the great Kalahari desert, it is a dry country where the arrival or failure of rain spells the difference between prosperity and disaster, a poor country where (according to published reports) 40% of the population is afflicted by the AIDS virus. The book does not hide the problems, but neither does it allow them to detract from an upbeat, sunny tone. This may or may not be the Botswana that actually exists, but it is very much what Botswana would like to be, a model to which its inhabitants try to live up, an image of what its society would like to look like.

    This is a book to read and savor, and the stories continue in other books by the same author. Mma Ramotswe is remarkably resourceful when it comes to solving her cases, on occasion employing bold initiative, but she uses no more than what life in Botswana offers--mainly her own friends and intuition. Nowadays in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, the tour agency "African Insight" takes visitors to spots which may have inspired these stories--to the home of Mma Ramotswe on Zebra road (actually named Zebra way), and to a garage very much like "Speedy Motors" of her dear friend and confidant J.L.B. Matekoni. With this book, though, you won't need any of this. Just open it, read a story, enjoy the plot and then, if you wish, close your eyes and imagine the rest.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 1 September 2003