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  • Written by Alexander McCall Smith
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A No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Novel (6)

Written by Alexander McCall SmithAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alexander McCall Smith

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On Sale: April 19, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-42357-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY - Book 6

Fans around the world adore the bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the basis of the HBO TV show, and its proprietor Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective.  In this charming series, Mma  Ramotswe navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, and good humor—not to mention help from her loyal assistant, Grace Makutsi, and the occasional cup of tea.

Precious is busier than usual at the detective agency when she discovers an intruder in her house on Zebra Drive—and perhaps even more baffling--a pumpkin on her porch. Her associate, Mma Makutsi, also has a full plate. She's taken up dance lessons, only to be partnered with a man with two left feet. And at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, where Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is already overburdened with work, one of his apprentices has run off with a wealthy older woman. But what finally rattles Mma Ramotswe’s normally unshakable composure is a visitor who forces her to confront a difficult secret from her past.

Excerpt

Chapter One
Honesty, Tea, and Things in the Kitchen

Mma Ramotswe was sitting alone in her favourite café, on the edge of the shopping centre at the Gaborone end of the Tlokweng Road. It was a Saturday, the day that she preferred above all others, a day on which one might do as much or as little as one liked, a day to have lunch with a friend at the President Hotel, or, as on that day, to sit by oneself and think about the events of the week and the state of the world. This café was a good place to be, for several reasons. Firstly, there was the view, that of a stand of eucalyptus trees with foliage of a comforting dark green which made a sound like the sea when the wind blew through the leaves. Or that, at least, was the sound which Mma Ramotswe imagined the sea to make. She had never seen the ocean, which was far away from land-locked Botswana; far away across the deserts of Namibia, across the red sands and the dry mountains. But she could imagine it when she listened to the eucalyptus trees in the wind and closed her eyes. Perhaps one day she would see it, and would stand on the shore and let the waves wash over her feet. Perhaps.

The other advantage which this café had was the fact that the tables were out on an open verandah, and there was always something to watch. That morning, for instance, she had seen a minor dispute between a teenage girl and her boyfriend-an exchange of words which she did not catch but which was clear enough in its meaning-and she had witnessed a woman scrape the side of a neighbouring car while she tried to park. The woman had stopped, quickly inspected the damage, and had then driven off. Mma Ramotswe had watched this incredulously, and had half-risen to her feet to protest, but was too late: the woman's car had by then turned the corner and disappeared and she did not even have time to see its number-plate.

She had sat down again and poured herself another cup of tea. It was not true that such a thing could not have happened in the old Botswana-it could-but it was undoubtedly true that this was much more likely to happen today. There were many selfish people about these days, people who seemed not to care if they scraped the cars of others or bumped into people while walking on the street. Mma Ramotswe knew that this was what happened when towns became bigger and people became strangers to one another; she knew too that this was a consequence of increasing prosperity, which, curiously enough, just seemed to bring out greed and selfishness. But even if she knew why all this happened, it did not make it any easier to bear. The rest of the world might become as rude as it wished, but this was not the way of things in Botswana and she would always defend the old Botswana way of doing things.

Life was far better, thought Mma Ramotswe, if we knew who we were. In the days when she was a schoolgirl in Mochudi, the village in which she had been born, everybody had known exactly who you were, and they often knew exactly who your parents, and your parents' parents, had been. Today when she went back to Mochudi, people would greet her as if she had barely been away; her presence needed no explanation. And even here in Gaborone, where things had grown so much, people still knew precisely who she was. They would know that she was Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe, and now the wife (after a rather protracted engagement) of that most gracious of mechanics, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. And some of them at least would also know that she lived in Zebra Drive, that she had a tiny white van, and that she employed one Grace Makutsi as her assistant. And so the ramifications of relationships and ties would spread further outwards, and the number of things that might be known would grow. Some might know that Mma Makutsi had a brother, Richard, who was now late; that she had achieved the previously unheard-of result of ninety-seven per cent in the final examinations of the Botswana Secretarial College; and that following upon the success of the Kalahari Typing School for Men, she had recently moved to a rather better house in Extension Two. Knowledge of this sort-everyday, human knowledge-helped to keep society together and made it difficult to scrape the car of another without feeling guilty about it and without doing something to let the owner know. Not that this appeared to make any difference to that selfish woman in the car, who had left the scrape unreported, who clearly did not care.

But there was no point in throwing up one's hands in despair. People had always done that-the throwing up of hands, the shrug-but one got nowhere in doing so. The world might have changed for the worse in some respects, but in others it was a much better place, and it was important to remember this. Lights went off in some places, but went on in others. Look at Africa-there had been so much to shake one's head over-corruption, civil wars, and the rest-but there was also so much which was now much better. There had been slavery in the past, and all the suffering which that had brought, and there had been all the cruelties of apartheid just those few miles away over the border, but all that was now over. There had been ignorance, but now more and more people were learning to write, and were graduating from universities. Women had been held in such servitude, and now they could vote and express themselves and claim lives for themselves, even if there were still many men who did not want such things to be. These were the good things that happened and one had to remember them.

Mma Ramotswe raised her tea cup to her lips and looked out over the brim. At the edge of the car park, immediately in front of the café, a small market had been set up, with traders' stalls and trays of colourful goods. She watched as a man attempted to persuade a customer to buy a pair of sunglasses. The woman tried on several pairs, but was not satisfied, and moved on to the next stall. There she pointed to a small piece of silver jewellery, a bangle, and the trader, a short man wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat, passed it across to her to try on. Mma Ramotswe watched as the woman held out her wrist to be admired by the trader, who nodded encouragement. But the woman seemed not to agree with his verdict, and handed the bangle back, pointing to another item at the back of the stall. And at that moment, while the trader turned round to stretch for whatever it was that she had singled out, the woman quickly slipped another bangle into the pocket of the jacket she was wearing.

Mma Ramotswe gasped. This time, she could not sit back and allow a crime to be committed before her very eyes. If people did nothing, then no wonder that things were getting worse. So she stood up, and began to walk firmly towards the stall where the woman had now engaged the trader in earnest discussion about the merits of the merchandise which he was showing her.

"Excuse me, Mma."

The voice came from behind her, and Mma Ramotswe turned round to see who had addressed her. It was the waitress, a young woman whom Mma Ramotswe had not seen at the café before.

"Yes, Mma, what is it?"

The waitress pointed an accusing finger at her. "You cannot run away like that," she said. "I saw you. You're trying to go away without paying the bill. I saw you."

For a moment Mma Ramotswe was unable to speak. The accusation was a terrible one, and so unwarranted. Of course she had not been trying to get away without paying the bill-she would never do such a thing; all she was doing was trying to stop a crime being committed before her eyes.

She recovered herself sufficiently to reply. "I am not trying to go away, Mma," she said. "I am just trying to stop that person over there from stealing from that man. Then I would have come back to pay."

The waitress smiled knowingly. "They all find some excuse," she said. "Every day there are people like you. They come and eat our food and then they run away and hide. You people are all the same."

Mma Ramotswe looked over towards the stall. The woman had begun to walk away, presumably with the bangle still firmly in her pocket. It would now be too late to do anything about it, and all because of this silly young woman who had misunderstood what she was doing.

She went back to her table and sat down. "Bring me the bill," she said. "I will pay it straightaway."

The waitress stared at her. "I will bring you the bill," she said. "But I shall have to add something for myself. I will have to add this if you do not want me to call the police and tell them about how you tried to run away."

As the waitress went off to fetch the bill, Mma Ramotswe glanced around her to see if people at the neighbouring tables had witnessed the scene. At the table next to hers, a woman sat with her two young children, who were sipping with evident pleasure at large milkshakes. The woman smiled at Mma Ramotswe, and then turned her attention back to the children. She had not seen anything, thought Mma Ramotswe, but then the woman leaned across the table and addressed a remark to her.

"Bad luck, Mma," she said. "They are too quick in this place. It is easier to run away at the hotels."



For a few minutes Mma Ramotswe sat in complete silence, reflecting on what she had seen. It was remarkable. Within a very short space of time she had seen an instance of bare-faced theft, had encountered a waitress who thought nothing of extorting money, and then, to bring the whole matter to a shameful conclusion, the woman at the next table had disclosed a thoroughly dishonest view of the world. Mma Ramotswe was frankly astonished. She thought of what her father, the late Obed Ramotswe, a fine judge of cattle but also a man of the utmost propriety, would have thought of this. He had brought her up to be scrupulously honest, and he would have been mortified to see this sort of behaviour. Mma Ramotswe remembered how she had been walking with him in Mochudi when she was a young girl and they had come across a coin on the edge of the road. She had fallen upon it with delight and was polishing it with her handkerchief before he noticed what had happened and had intervened.

"That is not ours," he said. "That money belongs to somebody else."

She had yielded the coin reluctantly, and it had been handed in to a surprised police sergeant at the Mochudi Police Post, but the lesson had been a vivid one. It was difficult for Mma Ramotswe to imagine how anybody could steal from another, or do any of the things which one read about in the Botswana Daily News court reports. The only explanation was that people who did that sort of thing had no understanding of what others felt; they simply did not understand. If you knew what it was like to be another person, then how could you possibly do something which would cause pain?

The problem, though, was that there seemed to be people in whom that imaginative part was just missing. It could be that they were born that way-with something missing from their brains-or it could be that they became like that because they were never taught by their parents to sympathise with others. That was the most likely explanation, thought Mma Ramotswe. A whole generation of people, not only in Africa, but everywhere else, had not been taught to feel for others because the parents simply had not bothered to teach them this.

She continued to think of this as she drove in her tiny white van, back through that part of town known as the Village, back past the University, with its growing sprawl of buildings, and finally along Zebra Drive itself, where she lived. She had been so disturbed by what she had seen that she had quite forgotten to do the shopping that she had intended to do, with the result that it was only when she pulled into her driveway and came to a halt beside the kitchen wall that she remembered that she had none of the items she needed to make that night's dinner. There were no beans, for example, which meant that their stew would be accompanied by no greens; and there would be no custard for the pudding which she had planned to make for the children. She sat at the wheel of the van and contemplated retracing her tracks to the shops, but she just did not have the energy. It was a hot day, and the house looked cool and inviting. She could go inside, make herself a pot of bush tea, and retire to her bedroom for a sleep. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and the children had gone out to Mojadite, a small village off the Lobatse Road, to visit his aunt, and would not be back before six or seven. She would have the house to herself for several hours yet, and this would be a good time for a rest. There was plenty of food in the house-even if it was the wrong sort for the dinner that she had planned. They could have pumpkin with the stew, rather than beans, and the children would be perfectly happy with a tin of peaches in syrup rather than the custard and semolina pudding that she had thought of making. So there was no reason to go out again.

Mma Ramotswe stepped out of the tiny white van and walked round to the kitchen door, unlocking it to let herself in. She could remember the days when nobody locked their doors in Botswana, and indeed when there were many doors that had no locks to lock anyway. But they had to lock their doors now and there were even people who locked their gates too. She thought of what she had seen only a short time before. That woman who had stolen from the trader with the wide-brimmed felt hat; she lived in a room somewhere which she no doubt kept locked, and yet she was prepared to steal from that poor man. Mma Ramotswe sighed. There was much in this world over which one might shake one's head. Indeed, it would be possible to go through life today with one's head in constant motion, like a puppet in the hands of a shaky puppeteer.


From the Hardcover edition.
Alexander McCall Smith

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the beloved, bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is also the author of numerous children’s books. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland. Visit his website at www.alexandermccallsmith.com.

Praise

Praise

"A literary confection of . . . gossamer deliciousness. . . . There is no end to the pleasure that may be extracted from [this book]."
The New York Times Book Review

"Enchanting. . . . In the Company of Cheerful Ladies may be the most compelling of the lot." —Daily News

"Put on the teakettle, find your place in the sun and settle in for a genteel journey. . . . McCall Smith has brewed up a gem of a story as rich as . . . red bush tea."
Rocky Mountain News

"Beguiling, lyrical. . . . Cheerful Ladies is blessed with . . . McCall Smith's richly detailed portraits of life in Africa and his flair for storytelling with an engaging cast of fully realized characters." —Los Angeles Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“A literary confection of . . . gossamer deliciousness. . . . There is no end to the pleasure that may be extracted from this book.”
The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, the sixth novel in the acclaimed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

About the Guide

Now married to Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, Precious Ramotswe has moved the office of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Tlokweng Road. The story opens with Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi struggling to keep up with their investigative work, while Mr J. L. B. Matekoni is similarly burdened with the success of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. When Charlie, one of the apprentices at the garage, suddenly quits, Mma Ramotswe suspects that the young man’s newfound sense of freedom is connected to the woman she has seen him with—a married lady who drives around in a Mercedes. To help out, Mma Ramotswe offers a job to Mr Polopetsi, a man she met when she knocked him off his bicycle in a minor traffic accident. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi follow the Mercedes one day and find that Charlie and his girlfriend are spending time at a shebeen—an illegal bar—located in, of all places, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni’s house, which he has rented out since his move to Zebra Drive. While Mr Polopetsi settles in at the garage, Grace begins taking dancing lessons in the hope of finding romance, only to be partnered with the most awkward man in the room. And then a visitor arrives, who threatens to throw Mma Ramotswe’s whole life into disarray by forcing her to confront a secret from her past.

All of this unfolds against the sunlit background of Mma Ramotswe’s beloved homeland, Botswana—a land of empty spaces, echoing skies, and an endless supply of soothing bush tea.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the huge international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. His other recent books include The Sunday Philosophy Club series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, The Girl Who Married a Lion, and 44 Scotland Street. He was born in Zimbabwe but has spent most of his life in Scotland, where he now lives. He worked for a time as a law professor at the University of Botswana and still returns regularly to that country.

www.AlexanderMcCallSmith.com
Visit the author’s official Web site to join the fan club, find out more about the author, browse a complete
listing of his books, and more.

Discussion Guides

1. In the opening scene, Mma Ramotswe watches as a driver sideswipes a parked car and drives away without taking responsibility and as a woman at a market steals a bracelet from a merchant when his back is turned. Mma Ramotswe jumps up from the café and tries to alert the merchant to the robbery, but her waitress accuses her of trying to run out on the bill and attempts to elicit a bribe. How do such behaviors mark the difference, for Mma Ramotswe, between the old Botswana and the new? Why does she wish to maintain ties to the old ways of thinking?

2. Detective stories usually have complex plots and eventually solve a mystery. McCall Smith’s books, however, are not so much based on plot as on human interaction and on the fact that “the unexplained was unexplained not because there was anything beyond explanation, but simply because the ordinary, day-to-day explanation had not made itself apparent. Once one began to enquire, so-called mysteries rapidly tended to become something more prosaic” [p. 17]. How does Mma Ramotswe’s approach to the detective’s profession differ from that found in other detective novels you have read? Why is the mystery of the intruder left unresolved at the end of the story?

3. At the church service Mma Ramotswe reflects, “It was a time of sickness, and charity was sorely tested. There were mothers here, mothers who would leave children behind them if they were called” [p. 27]. The minister refers to “this cruel illness that stalks Africa” [p. 31]. While the book doesn’t refer directly to HIV/AIDS, how does this deadly epidemic inflect McCall Smith’s presentation of modern Botswana, as well as his presentation of Mma Ramotswe’s state of mind?

4. Is it surprising that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi interfere in Charlie’s affair with the woman in the Mercedes? How do they justify this intervention?

5. The state of people’s clothes and hands, their manner of speaking, and countless other details are indicators from which we can make guesses about them. How does Mma Ramotswe conclude that Mr Polopetsi, regardless of having been in prison, is a good man [p. 52]? Why was she not, in the past, similarly observant about the character of Note Mokoti?

6. Why do Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have nothing to say when Mr Polopetsi finishes the story of how he went to jail?

7. What does Mma Ramotswe think of the irresponsible behavior of men like Charlie and its effects on their lives and the lives of people around them? Why does she take a dim view of men on the whole, with the exception of men like Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and Mr Polopetsi?

8. Like Jane Austen, McCall Smith is interested in manners. Think, for example, about how and why Grace eventually gained the courage to buy her own tea-pot so she could brew her own tea, how Mma Ramotswe apologized to Grace for assuming that she liked bush tea [p. 41], and how Charlie drained oil into that tea-pot [pp. 74–75]. Why are a person’s manners such a precise indicator of his or her character?

9. How does Grace overcome her initial impression of Phuti Radiphuti, and what qualities does she come to see in him? As a reader, what is your impression of Rra Radiphuti?

10. Consider some of the beloved objects in the novel, like Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van or Mma Makutsi’s lace handkerchief. What is their significance?

11. In the marriage of Mr J. L. B. Matekoni and Mma Ramotswe, much is left unsaid. For instance, when Note Mokoti comes to the garage, Rra Matekoni never asks Precious who this man is, and she doesn’t feel obligated to tell him. Is this degree of privacy unusual in a marriage? Are the two characters very different from each other? What is the foundation of their relationship?

12. What is the effect of reading that Mma Ramotswe, who is thought of as indomitable by the other characters, succumbs to fear and weakness in the presence of Note Mokoti? What is the source of his power, and what does this reveal about her character, past and present? How does she manage to subdue her fear?

13. If you have read other books in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, do the stories feel like one continuous novel, or do the individual volumes stand as discrete novels independent of the others? Is it important, for understanding the characters and their situations, to read the books in order, or is the order irrelevant?

14. Book reviewers and fans all agree that the novels in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series give a great deal of reading pleasure. Does this pleasure mask their moral seriousness, or is their moral seriousness part of what makes them pleasurable?

15. A typographic design, repeating the word Africa, follows the novel’s final sentence. How does this affect your reading of the ending, and what emotions does it express?

Suggested Readings

William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa; Agatha Christie, Sleeping Murder; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Nuruddin Farah, Gifts; Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; Nadine Gordimer, Telling Tales; Bessie Head, When Rain Clouds Gather; Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood; Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country; Norman Rush, Mating; Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood.

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