The gentle touch

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MMA RAMOTSWE IS BEING followed, in her little white van, through the streets of Gabarone, the capital of Botswana, most probably by someone who doesn't wish her well. Neither she nor the van are particularly practised at car chases, so one fears the worst.

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

by Alexander McCall Smith

Little, Brown, 256pp, 14.99

Yet by now, the ninth volume in McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe series, we should have realised that in it, the worst seldom happens. When the chasing car finally stops, its driver isn't the woman whom Mma Ramotswe had expected (a writer of malicious letters to her detective agency) but only good old Mma Potokwani, matron of the nearby orphan farm. She'd been trying to catch up with Mma Ramotswe's little white van in order to hand over a fruit cake for her garage-owner husband, Mr JLB Matekoni.

We know, from earlier books, all about Mr JLB Matekoni and cake. We know how Mma Potokwani uses it to bribe him to repair the orphanage's wonky machinery. We know of his essential goodness, and that the fruit cake will therefore always succeed in the intentions with which it was baked.

For the rest of the series has taught us, above all, that McCall Smith always keeps his contract with the reader's imagination. He never subverts his characters' motivations or the essentially benign rules of Botswanan life, underpinned as it is by almost all the qualities we see our own society lacking: respect, civic pride, thoughtfulness and compassion. The day a car chase turns into a bloody kidnapping in which Mma Ramotswe's spirit is broken and greed triumphs is the day McCall Smith's millions of readers desert him.

That's never going to happen. McCall Smith's Botswana will always remain a gentle, decent country, if not quite a paradise (there are, after all, always people like the one who has sent hate mail). And Mma Ramotswe herself, standard bearer for traditionally built women everywhere, will seldom be challenged by violence but will instead routinely work her way through other no less tough moral dilemmas. Should she tell her husband his faith in miracle cures is misplaced? Should she say anything to her assistant about a particularly expensive purchase? And – an especially frequent one, this – are the tiniest of white lies ever justified (and if so, when)?

At this stage in any series, one of the main problems facing any writer is the sheer amount of backstory for even the minor characters that has already been built up. How much do you have to rehash in order that new readers won't feel left out? And given that the characters and the overall moral framework isn't going to change, how can it avoid being repetitive?

Now it's true that McCall Smith repeats salient facts in his characterisation: Mma Matekosi's pride in her 97 per cent score at secretarial college; Mma Ramotswe's belief in the intellectually restorative powers of red bush tea; and (as we have already seen) Mma Potokwani's tendency to bribe through the medium of fruit cake. But this is a reassuring part of the entertainment, a deliberate signal that readers are returning to a well-ordered fictive world.

Because plot doesn't matter in his writing quite as much as characterisation and atmosphere, McCall Smith can get away with inserting the back-story into the new book more easily than most. In fact, he does this so subtly that one hardly even notices. And there's even a plus-side: the more clearly and completely fleshed out this fictional world is, the easier it slips into our imagination.

McCall Smith also delicately plays against expectations. As his series deals with good people (all three of those mentioned in the car-chase-that-wasn't, for example), readers might sometimes imagine that he is in the business of creating a Panglossian paradise. Given its very title and Mma Ramotswe's idealism, there are times in this novel when it looks as though he is heading in this direction.

Ultimately, though, he's not. Instead, these deceptively simple, wise and gently comedic tales hint at something far more alluring: the best of all possible worlds that human beings, with all their frailties and failings intact, could realistically aim at.

And whether you're making your first visit to McCall Smith's fictional Botswana or your ninth, it's an irresistible destination.

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