Book review: The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

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“The whole world is tumbling down,” says Mma Makutsi half-way through Alexander McCall Smith’s latest Botswana novel.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

by Alexander McCall Smith

Little, Brown, 263pp, £18.99

“It is surely the end.”

Even though it is well known that Grace Makutsi, the No 2 at the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, has a tendency to exaggerate, it is certainly true things have come to a pretty pass. First, the saintly Mma Potokwani summarily dismissed as matron of the orphan farm by its new business-minded director, Mr Ditso Ditso. Then Fanwell – the most industrious of the Mr JLB Matekone’s two apprentices – unjustly arrested. Surely such things cannot happen in the best of all possible sub-Saharan worlds?

Fortunately, the traditionally-built forces of goodness and common sense have a powerful ally. Passing through Botswana’s capital, Gabarone, on holiday is none other than Clovis Andersen, American author of The Principles of Private Detection, the very book Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have always consulted as their business bible. He spots the sign to the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and pays a professional courtesy call.

This is the first time we have met Mr Andersen, who turns out to be engagingly self-deprecating about his ability to solve crimes and the assorted mysteries of human behaviour. Yet whenever he helps Mma Ramotswe, his principles for successful sleuthing deliver almost instantaneous results. “It’s nothing,” he insists. “If you listen hard enough, people will always give themselves away.”

The charm of Professor McCall Smith’s No1 Ladies Detective Agency series lies largely in the fact that here is a world where this is palpably true. Sometimes you don’t even have to listen too hard at all. We know that Mr Putumelo, who is building Mma Makutsi’s marital home, is a wrong ’un as soon as he opens his mouth to mock women’s ignorance of his trade. Arrogant businessman Mr Ditso, similarly snide and dismissive, gives himself away equally easily.

As ever in McCall’s Botswana novels, the touchstone is respect for others. By their actions, Ditso and Putumelo make clear that they haven’t got it: bad things, we know, will therefore come their way. On the other hand, as Mma Ramotswe herself points out, “A man who is polite to the people he is in authority over will always be a good man”. To men who have respect for others, in other words – men like Mma Ramotswe’s garage mechanic husband Mr JLB Matekone, or like Mma Makutsi’s new husband Phuti Radiphuti – more will be added. Marriage to good women, for a start.

McCall Smith’s moral universe isn’t as simplistic as this might sound: good might occasionally triumph for bad reasons or characters accidentally deceive each other. For all that, though, these gentle stories of manners and morality have a clarity that is surely one of the reasons for their widespread appeal. That sense of order seems far harder to discern in our own rushed, deadline-driven lives, but it’s there aplenty in Botswana. Waiting to meet Clovis Andersen on the verandah of the President Hotel, Mma Ramotswe notes that it was a place where nothing very much happens. This is, to her, emphatically not a criticism: a place where you can drink tea, watch the world go by, anticipate the arrival of a friend, remember loved ones, daydream, perhaps eat cake, is itself a small slice of heaven. A truism, perhaps, but no less true – and applicable to our own too-stressed lives – for all that.