McCall Smith, Alexander. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love
In Botswana, Precious Ramotswe uses an inheritance to open her own detective agency. In a world run by men, Precious must be brave and assertive to solve the puzzles her clients bring her. Less a murder mystery and more a caricature, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency surprised me. The past year I’ve been devouring cheap murder mysteries. I was expecting this to be the same, formulaic murder mystery. It did not meet these expectations. It exceeded them.
I should preface this with some background information about my reading experience. I am well-read in African literature. I’ve read the major writers—Ousman Sembene, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, and Calixthe Beyala. I’ve taken many, many classes on Francophone and Anglophone literature of North and West Africa. I can spot a well-written piece of African literature and pick it out from the pseudo-African literature (books written more from a colonist’s perspective than an African’s perspective, etc., etc.).
That being said, a lot of debate exists about this book in particular. The debate stems from the author of the novel, a white man, whose protagonist is a black African woman. Critics claim that the tone is patronizing, pointing out how “simple minded” the characters are. Critics lauded the slow pace of the narrative as another nail in the coffin for this book.
I myself, found the book delightful. I’ve thought a lot about the criticism about McCall Smith being a white man narrating a black woman’s story and to be perfectly honest, as a feminist I was quick to jump on the bandwagon and fume about what a foul trick he was trying to play. I had to take a step back though, and think about this as a writer and a reader too. If I knew nothing about this author and I read the book with no idea who had written it, I would have found it to be a compelling and authentic story.
Those who find the characters to be simple-minded and the plot slow might not be reading the text and digesting it. If one slows down a bit and digests the story as it unfolds, one discovers an enormous amount of wit and humor in the characters and their interactions with one another. The story moves slowly, but so does life in Botswana. It unfolds more as a collection of vignettes than as one seamless novel but this enables the reader to digest and interpret and contemplate the story instead of speeding through it. One can read a chapter and put the book down for a while. Think about the plot, the characters the connections between this chapter and the last. It’s not meant to be read quickly. It’s meant to be absorbed one page at a time. The only way to enjoy this book is to read it slowly. It’s not a Tom Clancy novel. There’s a time and place for fast-paced, plot-driven novels, and this is not it.
SO, let’s go back to expectations. I was expecting a beach read, or as a friend and fellow blogger puts it, popcorn lit. My experience with the narrative styles of African writers allowed me to recognize that my expectations were way off the mark. This isn’t popcorn lit; this is African lit and it’s delightful.
4 darts out of 5
This book is FOR: people who like a slow, character-driven story.
This book is NOT FOR: people expecting an action-packed, fast-pasted mystery thriller.