Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Blessings in the bush

kw: book reviews, crime fiction, mysteries, african setting

I have enjoyed yet another "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novel by Alexander McCall Smith: The Double Comfort Safari Club. I particularly like these for two reasons. Firstly, they are not "murder mysteries," but instead delve into the mysteries of human behavior and inconsistency. Secondly, they are very homey. Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of the Agency, is a comfortable woman of "traditional build" which means large economy size, who has a wise manner and few foibles. Her assistant Grace Makutsi is more like an excitable kid sister, with foibles aplenty but a lovable nature.

Sometimes the two of them together can team up to solve a situation. More frequently, Mma Ramotswe, moving with almost glacial inertia, brings matters to a conclusion while her assistant watches. This is not "action fiction," but is more true to life, in which most detective work is boring routine punctuated with the occasional surprise. Nobody here is a kung fu expert, though it might be said that our dear lady detective is adept in mental aikido.

In this novel she is faced with a few delicate cases, one requiring travel to the stunning Okavango Delta, plus the twists and turns of Mma Makutsi's ongoing courtship with her fiancé Phuti Radiphuti, complicated by a debilitating accident he suffers and intervention by a hostile maiden aunt. It takes a force greater than Mma Ramotswe's to dislodge Rra Radiphuti from the aunt's control, but that's what friends are for.

The Botswana setting is about as different from the familiar Western environment as I can imagine, and its beauty and charm—and occasional qualm and venality—are brought out with great grace by the author. The land is caught halfway between historical African culture and the Westernized veneer wrought by a few centuries of missionary efforts. The people, as people do, make the best of both worlds as they slowly evolve into a modern culture. The simple qualities of thought that underlie the Setswana languages (the people are multi-lingual) might at first lead one to think the people are simple-minded. They are far from that. They may think differently, but they are neither shallow nor simple. There is much here to tantalize the innately problem-solving reader, without the chilling effect of the killings most mystery stories seem to require.

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