Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Alexander McCall Smith (1998)
235 pages

This book about the first female detective in Botswana was a delight from start to finish and came as a complete surprise. I’d expected it to be a quick read, a fluff bit of mystery, a sort of African Miss Marple. Instead, I was treated to a story focusing as much on character development and sense of place as it did on detective work.

Mma Ramotswe is the owner and soul sleuth in the titular agency. This first book in the detective series by Alexander McCall Smith relates Mma Ramotswe’s life story, the founding of her business, and her freshman set of cases. A rank amateur, she studies a manual called The Principles of Private Investigation and trusts her intuition in dealing with people. This is not your mother’s Agatha Christie. While Mma Ramotswe’s cases may involve the usual missing person or errant husband, the abundance of local color gives each case a charming unpredictability.

For such a brief, quick book, characters have a surprising depth and humanity to them. No. 1 Ladies reads like a series of vignettes rather than one long mystery. Each chapter stands on its own as a concise slice of life and together they form a wonderful glimpse into life in a Botswana town. And at its heart is a gem of a love story. I look forward to revisiting Mma Ramotswe in future No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency installments. [***** out of 5]

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