The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith; published 1998 by Anchor Books
Genre: Mystery? Classic? Contemporary fiction? Amazing??
Opening line: “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”
What’s a word for “makes me smile,” or “restores my faith in humanity,” but also conveys “badass” and “forward-thinking”? Whatever that word is, it describes this book. Or, more accurately, it describes Precious Ramotswe, our endearing main character.
Precious Ramotswe was raised by her father, an honest coal miner, and her father’s cousin. Her father was particularly supportive of her dreams, leaving her money to open a business and telling her she didn’t have to get married if she didn’t want to. The cousin gave Precious an excellent education, fostering curiosity and awareness.
Precious is incredibly smart—but what makes her stand out is her integrity. For instance, In school, she is awarded a prize for a painting of goats, but it is mislabeled as a painting of cattle. Precious refuses to take the prize, thinking, “She was about to become a criminal, a perpetrator of fraud. She could not possibly take a prize for a cattle picture when she simply did not deserve that.” The Minister of Education awards her the prize anyway, telling her that the staff had made a mistake.
Even from a young age, Precious is realistic about people’s character:
The problem, of course, was that people did not seem to understand the difference between right and wrong. They needed to be reminded about this, because if you left it to them to work out for themselves, they would never bother. They would just find out what was best for them, and then they would call that the right thing. That’s how most people thought.
This strong sense of right and wrong, coupled with her common sense, lead Precious to a successful career as Botswana’s first lady detective. Most of the book tells the stories of mysteries she solves, and the way she helps to heal many of the relationships in her village. Her empathy and integrity lead her to take on cases that the authorities leave untouched, and she courageously challenges the prejudices and injustices that most people in the village ignore.
But Precious isn’t perfect—and this makes her all the more relatable. There are times when she misjudges a person, or is actually proven wrong. When that happens, she humbly accepts it and uses the experience to broaden her own understanding of people and the world.
Throughout reading, I kept thinking, “I want to be like her.” Despite the challenges she faces and the skepticism villagers have about trusting a lady detective, Precious simply refuses to stop working to right the wrongs in Africa.
There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.
Every man has a map in his heart of his own country and… the heart will never allow you to forget this map.
Some people think of God as a white man, which is an idea which the missionaries brought with them all those years ago and which seems to have stuck in people’s mind. I do not think this is so, because there is no difference between white men and black men; we are all the same; we are just people.
One day, women would be able to sound their own voice, perhaps, and would point out what was wrong. But they would need to be able to read to do that.
He looked at her in the darkness, at this woman who was everything to him—mother, Africa, wisdom, understanding, good things to cat, pumpkins, chicken, the smell of sweet cattle breath, the white sky across the endless, endless bush, and the giraffe that cried, giving its tears for women to daub on their baskets; O Botswana, my country, my place.
Recommend? Yes—I’m already anxious to re-read it!
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