Thursday, December 01, 2005

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I had heard of this book for long and generally people had spoken positively about the book. Therefore when I picked it up, it was with this “feel good” feedback that I took it. However, I did not have too many expectations of the book. I had not known if the book would be serious or just one of those racy thrillers. Now having read the book I still have some very mixed feelings. I really am at a loss to understand what makes a book hit the bestseller list. What makes a book sell 3 million copies. Why do people call this “One of the best, most charming, honest, hilarious and life-affirming books to appear in years” - No, the book does not deserve so many superlatives. But well, imagine the discipline of marketing without the use of superlatives...

It is a nice book – not very ambitious – very much like the protagonist Mma Ramotswe. It is different from the books written in this genre. What is unique about this book is that it is set in a very different setting – Botswana. Mma Ramotswe loves the country – and as a part of the justification on why she loves the place, she describes as to how different (and safe) it is compared to the other nearby countries. Unlike other books in this genre, the detective does not have a bungling assistant, she does not even appear professional enough – you get a feeling that she is one of the nice neighborly ladies who drifted into this profession and has been following it as she seems to like it. It is very much like many women taking a hobby of “interior design” a bit seriously and converting it into a profession. Therefore one tends to forgive all the naïve things the lady does. She is not “expected” to be a thorough professional in the league of Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

There is something more interesting in this book – unlike most of the other books it does not have a single mystery to be solved, not all the mysteries get solved and there is never a feeling that the reader could get involved in trying to guess who the criminal is nor is there a reader involvement in the plot. So the book reads like any other dispassionate narrative, with incidents one after the other falling in place. Most of the cases get solved not because of great logic, but through a combination on circumstantial coincidences and a little bit of intelligence.

If finding out a criminal was as simple as made out in this book, the world would have been a much better place to live in. Mma Ramotswe has an uncanny knack of going directly to the perpetrator of the crime and asking him or her “did you do this crime?' (or almost similar) and the criminal almost always admits to the crime. So the mystery is solved. Just as simple as that. There is a certain grandmotherly goodness in her that makes such incidents somewhat believable.

I am a bit intrigued about the case of Boyfriend – did the lady solve the case, or was she taken for a ride or did she decide to withdraw from the case. This is a curious case of an possessive Indian father who wants to protect his girls from “boyfriends” put them through arranged marriages. Mma Ramotswe is not convinced and thinks that they ought to be “modern” and therefore does not like taking up the case of spying on the daughter. But still she picks up the case because she wants money – she has made a gross loss of 30 pula in the first month.. So she accepts the assignment handed over by Paliwalar Sundigar Patel (being an Indian, staying in Gujarat, I have never heard of such a Patel name, but alas that is the character) to check on his daughter Nandira (again a peculiar Indian name, but you never know what happens to Indians when they reach the African subcontinent and then move to Botswana). Mma Ramotswe follows the girl and is convinced that she does not have a boyfriend and so she reports to Mr. Patel, just to find that there is a certain Jack who suddenly appears to create a twist in the tale. This incident is completely forgotten and this loose end is never tied up later!

While the narration is simple and the characters turn out with tons of simplicity, the book seems to move seamlessly from one time point to the other. The book does not bore you, there is a certain element of curiosity that is kept alive throughout, but I certainly do not believe that there is great humor, wit or intelligence in the book. While the edition I picked up had the first chapter of the sequel – possibly another marketing gimmick as a teaser, I am not convinced that it is worth a buy. I would go for it if I am really feeling low and do not want to tax my mind. But mysteries were always meant to tax your mind, at least until the end of the book.

I do not regret having read the book, but nothing would be lost if I had not read it.


Anonymous said...

I wish I hadn't read this review - I just bought this book ;-)

The only other Alexander Mc Call Smith I've read so far is 44 Scotland Street. Wit? A little, maybe. More like gentle homour and a tongue-in-cheek commentary on people & life :)

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