BY ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH
Polygon, 240pp, 12.99
IN A PERFECT WORLD - AND HIS BOTS-wana comes pretty close - Alexander McCall Smith might well give up on plot altogether. Even at the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the business of chasing crooks and righting wrongs can be, after all, quite fraught and tiring: how much more pleasant to take the weight off one's feet, sit in a nice comfortable chair, talk to a good friend, share a cake and sip at cup full of red bush tea?
The latest adventures of Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith's large-hearted and wide-waisted heroine, are probably the literary equivalent of just such an enjoyable tea-break. Ostensibly, she is tracking down a college cook's blackmailer, trying to lift an apparent curse on a wildlife reserve, and exposing a fraudulent doctor, but cracking these cases only takes a fraction of her time. All the more to spend, then, on the really important things in life.
What those are might come as a surprise to those unacquainted with McCall Smith's gentle but always engaging story-telling. Offhand, I cannot think of any other novel in which, as here, the central events turn out to be the purchase of a comfortable chair and an uncomfortable pair of shoes. With any other writer, such concentration on apparent trivia would be a sure sign that they'd lost the plot, literally and metaphorically.
With McCall Smith, however, plot matters mainly in the way that it reveals character, and in Mma Ramotswe he has created one of the great, good characters of popular fiction. He has also created a world in which her goodness is totally at home, for in Mma Ramotswe's Botswana enough people still hold - just - to a code of behaviour that shames western selfishness. This is a land, after all, where "nobody is alone in sadness", where good looks and a large bank account count for little but wisdom is remembered, where showiness is scorned but discretion admired. Who would not want to live there?
And who would not want to read about Mma Ramotswe's quiet, dignified garage-owning husband Mr JLB Matekoni, her dutiful assistant Mma Makutsi and her protg, Mr Polopetsi, too? Like her, they are cynicism-proof, uncomplicated people; like her they have to battle against the wiles of the modern world.
For the plain, bespectacled Mma Makutsi, that means seeing flashier secretaries than her waltz off with the most desirable men; for JLB Matekoni, trying to keep his unruly apprentices in line at his garage; for Mr Polopetsi, previously unjustly imprisoned, it meant, until Mma Ramotswe bumped into him and offered him a job, destitution.
Even such paragons are tested, often through the smallest things - but, as Mma Ramotswe says, "small things are often very important to people ... our lives are made up of small things". The moral grace with which she deals with them is one of the chief delights of the series.
Another of its strengths is that just when McCall Smith has focused his gaze on the apparently trivial - should Mma Ramotswe go on a diet? What should she say about Mma Makutsi's obviously uncomfortable shoes - he can also lift it higher and wider. He can show us Africa's beauty or, gently, Death itself. So here Mma Ramotswe, finding that a western tourist who has just had her photo taken with her, is terminally ill, clasps her hand and whispers: "The Lord will look after you, my sister," before standing up and saying goodbye to her in Setswana "because that is the language that her heart spoke". The woman is a stranger, they only meet for a moment, but that doesn't matter; what does, at all levels and always, is love and kindness.
Then McCall Smith will take us out again into the hot African sun, show us a traditionally built woman detective climbing into her tiny white van, which sinks down on its axle on one side as it drives off. There'll doubtless be other cases to solve over a pot of red bush tea (and perhaps, for the lucky ones, some of Mma Potokwani's fruit cake), other strangers drifting into her office on the Tlokweng Road.
At one point in the novel, Mma Ramotswe thinks aloud: "If only more people knew that there was more to Africa than all the problems they saw. They could love us too, as we love them."
She shouldn't worry. She's got Alexander McCall Smith on her side. It will happen.