Book review: To the Land of Long Lost Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith
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Paying customers for the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s premier – and only – female-led investigative bureau, are a little thin on the ground in this, the 20th novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s series. Instead, Precious Ramotswe and her sidekick Grace Makutsi embark on unpaid detective work.

At a wedding Mma Ramotswe bumps into an old school friend who confesses that her only daughter has become estranged, for reasons unknown. Another acquaintance has lost her money to a self-styled reverend who has found popularity with quite a few converts amongst the ladies of Gaborone. And a previously closed case gets complicated when a letter is received from the absolved husband, who had been accused of infidelity, suggesting that he might not be innocent after all.

Meanwhile, Charlie the apprentice mechanic and part-time assistant detective has become engaged to a vibrant young lady by the name of Queenie-Queenie, an outcome that he isn’t entirely sure that he instigated. As ever, the narrative weaves these stories together, touching on both the minutiae of life and discussions of greater questions.

The world of Mma Ramotswe and Co is not insulated from global problems. Children suffer from poverty and neglect, men and women struggle to define their roles and treat each other with respect, and for some, money is how you weigh a person’s value. But, seen through the kind and understanding eyes of Mma Ramotswe and her husband Mr JLB Matekoni, there are few problems that cannot be mitigated.

Mma Ramotswe’s great skill as a detective is spotting the tiny foibles of people’s characters, and how to subtly manipulate these to come up with the answers she needs to crack a case. Her conversation with an officious security guard, in which we are treated the inner thoughts of both characters, is a treat.

The question of gender equality is discussed throughout. Mma Makutsi and Charlie, never the easiest of colleagues, are entrenched in their opposing views, but still get themselves tangled in their theories. Mma Makutsi rants that many men are “unintelligent in the head” but also that: “Those ladies who are always saying men are rubbish, are saying that because they have not found a man for themselves, Mma – not even a rubbish man.”

McCall Smith may only gently poke fun at his regular characters’ quirks and insecurities, but there is a certain sharpness reserved for those who exploit others.

Every page contains a gem of wit and insight, and there are also beautiful descriptions of the landscape, so much so that you can almost feel the throbbing heat of the day and the coolness of the night.

The gentle pace of the narrative gives the characters – and readers – time for reflection, and to dig deep into wider questions of love, compassion and respect. The novel doesn’t shy away from the most difficult subjects either. A moving passage about the life of a young orphan is likely to prompt tears in all but the hardest of hearts.

Advice is available for the smallest of life’s conundrums too, for instance from the matron of the “orphan farm”, when serving Mr JLB Matekoni a reward after he has fixed a machine for free. When he is considering what a second piece of cake will do to the fit of his trousers, she says: “‘Deserved calories do not count, Rra”. Kirsty McLuckie

To the Land of Long Lost Friends, by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, 227pp, £18.99