Excerpted from Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2002 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
What's What and Who's Who in THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY
Alexander McCall Smith's Guide to the World of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
First and foremost, Mma Ramotswe:
Mma is the term used to address a woman, and may be placed before her name. It is pronounced "ma" (with a long a)
Rra is the rough equivalent of "mister". It is pronounced "rar", but with a slight rolling of the second r.
Mma Ramotswe is the daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe. African English makes frequent use of the word late in this context. People say: "My father is late" rather than use more brutal expressions. At one point Mma Ramotswe refers to a "late dog" which had been run over by a steamroller. This shows great delicacy.
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni always uses his initials. Why this formality? People in Botswana can be fairly formal with one another. In Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's case, that is what he has always been called and nobody has ever found out what the initials stand for. The L is, in fact, Livingstone.
Sir Seretse Khama is referred to from time to time. Mma Ramotswe is a great admirer of his and feels proud of the first President of Botswana. Sir Seretse was a great man, who set the moral tone of the new republic.
Dr Moffat appears from time to time, together with his wife, Fiona. They are real people who currently live in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Howard Moffat, a doctor, is a direct descendant of Robert Moffat, the Scottish missionary who first rendered the Setswana language in written form. Robert Moffat's daughter married David Livingstone.
Setswana, the language spoken in most of Botswana. Most people speak English too and newspapers, for example, will be in both languages.
Bush tea is very important to Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi. It is a reddish tea, caffeine-free, which is also known as rooibos (red bush tea). It is an acquired taste, and may be drunk with honey, in which case it is called honeybush tea.
Masarwa. This term is commonly used to refer to the San people (previously called Bushmen) who inhabited the Kalahari and who have gradually moved away from their hunter-gatherer life.
The Kalahari is a semi-desert which occupies the central and western parts of Botswana. It supports light vegetation, but very few people.
The Orphan Farm exists, though not under that name. The orphans live in small houses presided over by a housemother. There is a matron (called, in the books, Mma Potokwani) and a man who is officially employed as a father figure, surely one of the more unusual job titles. In the past, the matron's husband occupied that job.
The Bishop. Mma Ramotswe admires the Bishop. He is in charge of the Anglican Cathedral, which is directly opposite the Princess Marina Hospital. The lats occupant of this office was the Bishop Walter Makhulu, who has recently handed over to Bishop Theophilus.
Mafikeng (formerly Mafeking) lies to the south, outside the borders of Botswana. Mma Ramotswe previously shopped there, but now that Gaborone has better shops she is content to do all her shopping there.
Zebra Drive. This is where Mma Ramotswe has her house. There is a Zebra Way in Gaborone. Mma Ramotswe's house is the last house on the left before the Zebra Way turns the corner.
Tlokweng Road, the road on which Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors sits, goes to Tlokweng, some five or six miles outside Gaborone. The Francistown Road goes to Francistown, in the North, and the Lobatse Road goes to Lobatse. To get to Molepolole, one should take the Molepolole Road.
The Village is the old part of the Gaborone. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni lives on the edge of the Village, near the old Botswana Defence Force Club.
Acacia trees cover the land. They have light greyish-greenish leaves and harbour birds such as the Go-Away Bird with its famous cry, or doves.
Cattle are very important. They are everywhere. A person's prosperity will usually be measured by the number of cattle he or she has.
1. The values of courtesy, respect, and politeness—proper forms of greeting and speech, in particular—are stressed throughout the Precious Ramotswe novels. Which characters in Morality for Beautiful Girls adhere to these traditional courtesies? Which characters violate them? What are the moral implications of upholding or ignoring such traditions?
2. How surprising is it that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni suffers from depression in Morality for Beautiful Girls? What might be the causes of that depression? What seems to bring him out of it?
3. Clovis Anderson, author of The Principles of Private Detection, writes that there is “very little drama” in being a detective and that “those who are looking for romance should lay down this manual . . . and do something else” [p. 59]. Most detective novels do, however, rely on adventure and “drama” to sustain their readers’ interest. What makes the Precious Ramotswe novels so engaging even in the absence of such drama?
4. In considering a friend who treated her maid badly, Mma Ramotswe thinks that “such behaviour was no more than ignorance; an inability to understand the hopes and aspirations of others. That understanding . . . was the beginning of all morality. If you knew how a person was feeling, if you could imagine yourself in her position, then surely it would be impossible to inflict further pain. Inflicting pain in such circumstances would be like hurting oneself” [p. 77]. Which characters in the novel demonstrate this ability to empathize with others? Which characters fail to do so? Why, ultimately, is this kind of compassion so important?
5. Clovis Anderson also warns against making “prior assumptions” and deciding “in advance what’s what and who’s who” [p. 125]. In what instance does Mma Ramotswe make this mistake? Where else in the novel do assumptions turn out to be false? In what ways are being a reader and being a detective similar, in terms of this matter of making assumptions?
6. How is Mma Makutsi able to transform Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s lazy, irresponsible apprentices into hard-working mechanics? What qualities of character does she display in her management of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors? Why do these boys respond to her so well?
7. Early in the novel, Mma Makutsi relates an article she has read about the anthropologist, Richard Leaky, which shows that the human species originated in East Africa. Mma Ramotswe asks, “so we are all brothers and sisters, in a sense?” To which Mma Makutsi replies, “We are. . . . We are all the same people. Eskimos, Russians, Nigerians. They are the same as us. Same blood. Same DNA” [p. 12]. What are the implications, for the moral questions that the novel raises, of this statement? What does it suggest about distinctions based on race?
8. In trying to find a morally suitable girl to win the beauty contest, Mma Makutsi believes, “the difficulty was that good girls were unlikely to enter a beauty competition in the first place. It was, in general, not the sort of thing that good girls thought of doing” [p. 204]. What does this passage suggest about the relationship between beauty and morality, or between appearance and essence? Is Mma Makutsi right about all this?
9. The later chapters of Morality for Beautiful Girls alternate between Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi and their respective investigations. What does this parallel narrative structure add to the novel?
10. What enables Mma Ramotswe to discover what is really happening with the Government Man’s brother and his farm? In what ways do her intelligence, intuition, experience, and keen observation serve her in arriving at the truth of the situation?
11. The plot of Morality for Beautiful Girls revolves not around the unraveling of a crime, or the intent to commit a crime, but around discovering the absence of such intent. In most detective novels, this outcome would be a disappointment, at the very least. Why is it a satisfying and appropriate ending for this story?
12. One reviewer observed that “for all their apparent simplicity, the Precious Ramotswe books are highly sophisticated” [The Spectator]. In what ways do these books appear simple? What accounts for their underlying sophistication? What do they teach us about ourselves?