As I sit here sipping my red bush tea (artistic licence… it’s PG Tips!), I’ve been reflecting on how long I’ve been acquainted with Mma Precious Ramotswe, and why she deserves her place in the list of classic crime novels.
I first met this lovely lady of traditional build in the late 1990s. I was on holiday and, as usual in those pre-Kindle days, there was plenty of time to go before I returned home and I had run out of things to read. A friend let me borrow her copy of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and I was immediately hooked. I’ve always been a fan of high-action, bloody and remorseless crime novels, and this book was none of those things, but I loved it all the same.
And I’m certainly not the only one. The series has just celebrated its 15th anniversary and Precious appears in 14 novels, including one for children. Sales of the first 13 books have topped 20 million copies in English, and the books appear in 45 languages around the world.
For the uninitiated, The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first in a series of books, all set in Botswana and featuring the aforementioned Precious Ramotswe. She’s the lady detective of the title. Oh, and they’re written by a Rhodesian-born Scotsman, Alexander McCall Smith. There have been 14 so far, with gorgeous covers – at least until number 12 in the series, when the publishers, in their wisdom, decided to lose the fabulous, colourful vinyl block print and collage designs of Hannah Firmin for something much less eye-catching. Try to pick up earlier editions if you can – as well as great reading, they are a feast for the eyes.
But I digress. The series is set in the here and now, but because of the exotic Botswana backdrop it almost feels as if you’re going back in time. This is post-colonial Africa, but an old-style politeness lives on. That can seem alien to people like me, living in a fast-moving, technology laden world that can sometimes seem devoid of manners or morals. The stories also look at crime and punishment from a markedly different angle. Precious is a woman whose history and upbringing have shaped the way she views the world around her. It has given her a finely tuned sense of justice – but that justice is always dispensed on her terms, and her solutions are often a little, shall we say, unusual.
McCall Smith has a real talent for descriptive prose, and it is due to his skills that we readers can feel the heat and dust, visualise the countryside and scenery and can even conjure up the scents of a country that is probably unknown to most of us. By the end of the first book, you will almost certainly have developed an affinity with Botswana, its people and customs. And it is a familiarity that will only deepen, the further into the series you go.
Precious is at the heart of the books, but she is ably assisted by an engaging array of supporting characters – foremost of whom are the wonderful Mma Grace Makutsi and Mr JLB Maketoni. Grace works alongside Precious at the No1 Ladies Detective Agency, where she endeavours to keep her boss on the straight and narrow. Grace is a proud and able woman whose greatest achievement is that she scored an unprecedented 97 per cent in her exams at the Botswana Secretarial College. It is a fact that she never lets anyone forget. She can appear pushy and overbearing, but Grace has a heart of gold, and she takes a greater and greater role in the business – and the storylines – as the series progresses. The same can also be said for Mr Maketoni, who is the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and also Precious’s long-standing (and long-suffering) fiancé. He is always referred to by his formal title and is a wonderfully conceived character.
With the old fashioned manners there are plenty of charming and cosy aspects to The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but the stories do have a much darker side. Issues such as domestic violence, mental health and AIDS are covered, and the murder case that is at the heart of the first book is based upon the 1994 ritual killing of a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Mochudi, Botswana.
My personal favourites are the first book in the series; In the Company of Cheerful Ladies which is the sixth one; and the ninth book, The Miracle at Speedy Motors. There are other ways to enjoy No1 Ladies’ as well. In 2008 and 2009, the BBC made a television series based on the books which is available on DVD. It was shot in Botswana and starred Jill Scott as Precious. I loved the TV adaptation, but apparently not everyone agreed with me, because it was cancelled after one series due to poor ratings. Perhaps the viewing world wasn’t yet ready for the whimsical Mma Ramotswe, which is a pity, because it offered something new and decidedly different and for me, made perfect Sunday night viewing. Books one through 13 have also been dramatised for BBC Radio by Alexander McCall Smith himself, and there’s even a Mme Ramotswe’s Cookbook, published in 2009. Ker-ching!
I think I love Precious because she has the homespun wit and intelligence of my childhood favourite, Brer Rabbit, uses her little grey matter to great effect, just like Hercule Poirot, and loves a cup of tea and a cream cake, like yours truly. She is a unique creation and one that certainly deserves her place in the crime fiction hall of fame.