Mystery novel set in Botswana about love, independence and humanity
Content warning: family violence, child labour
There are a lot of people in my family who enjoy detective and mystery novels, and I have had this book recommended to me several times. In fact, I have had a copy on my bookshelf for so long, I can’t remember where I got it from. This year, I have migrated from Goodreads to StoryGraph to keep track of the books I read. One of the things that StoryGraph offers is its new members is its onboarding challenge with six different challenge prompts to complete in your first year of membership. The second challenge prompt is “Read a book from the Five-Star section of someone from Similar Users”, and this book came up.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith is a mystery novel about Precious, a woman who opens a detective agency in Botswana with her inheritance from her father. Despite a slow start and some raised eyebrows from other citizens, Precious eventually receives her first clients. Although she does not have much experience or formal training, her unorthodox style, tenacity, powers of observation and empathy generate results. However, some of the mysteries prove to be challenging and solving them may prove dangerous. Meanwhile, Precious has to contend with advances from eligible men. However, with a history of heartbreak and a business to run, she is reluctant to think about romance again.
This was a fun and surprisingly complex book that tackled a range of social issues. I was particularly impressed at how sensitively McCall Smith handled family violence, and how a strong, independent woman can nevertheless experience violence and become a survivor. It is impossible to read this book and not empathise completely with Precious, and admire her resilience to begin her life again on her own terms. I also enjoyed a lot of the peripheral characters, most especially Mr JLB Matekoni, whose quiet sweetness is a delightful counterpart to Precious’ own style.
Although McCall Smith has clearly spent a lot of time in Botswana, and writes generously about the country, as he is a white man of Scottish heritage I did find myself wondering about the book’s authenticity (having never been to Botswana myself). I have read books by authors from other African nations including Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and South Africa but none yet by an author from Botswana. There is a really interesting, detailed article on Medium about some of the barriers to novels being published in Botswana and shared with the rest of the world. McCall Smith’s book has also been adapted into a TV series which was one of the first major film productions in Botswana and has a talented cast that bring this off-beat mystery story to life.
An enjoyable, original story that subverts the detective fiction genre.