Book review: The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe finds herself facing an uncomfortable moral dilemma in the latest book in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, writes Roger Cox

Alexander McCall Smith at his Edinburgh home PIC: Andy O'Brien / The Scotsman
Alexander McCall Smith at his Edinburgh home PIC: Andy O'Brien / The Scotsman

Studies have shown that reading can lower your blood pressure, but might some books – and some authors – achieve this more effectively than others? It's certainly hard to think of many works of fiction that could offer a reading experience as calming in style and reassuring in message as the latest Mma Ramotswe outing from Alexander McCall Smith.

That said, the acclimatization process might take a few pages. In particular, readers who have arrived direct from a nail-biting thriller or a stressful non-fiction book about climate change might struggle to tune in to the gently meandering opening, in which Mma Ramotswe, owner of Botswana's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, sits on her veranda early one morning, drinking redbush tea and pondering the vexed question of what makes men tick.

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But of course, what might seem like an entertaining but somewhat insubstantial passage of interior monologue is in fact the key to the whole book, laying the intellectual groundwork for the story to follow.

The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe's husband, Mr JLB Matekoni, the mechanic, has been feeling out of sorts, so she encourages him to attend a course entitled Where is Your Business Going? Mr Matekoni never seems to have given much thought to the future prospects of his garage, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, beyond perhaps one day handing it over to his apprentice Fanwell, but after listening to a presentation from his former schoolfriend Mr TK Molefi, now a "motivational speaker and business adviser", he returns home feeling as if he has somehow failed in life, and seems even more down than before. Could starting a new bus company with Mr Molefi be the answer? Even if it means taking out a mortgage on the garage to raise the necessary capital?

Meanwhile, back at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe and her hyper-assertive assistant Mma Makutsi find themselves in a difficult position when a wealthy new client asks them to investigate his father, after discovering that the old man has decided to leave the family farm to the nurse who has been caring for him. What to do when you have misgivings about your own client and find that you rather like the people you are supposed to be investigating? And, in a further troubling sub-plot, is there anything Mma Ramotswe can do about the rumour that another wealthy local family are using vulnerable children as slave labour?

As fans of the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency series would expect, rather than jumping to conclusions, Mma Ramotswe displays admirable forbearance and sensitivity in all these matters, patiently piecing together information until she's ready to act. As with all the best bus rides, though, this is a book in which savouring the journey is more important than the final destination.

The Joy and Light Bus Company, by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, £18.99

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