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A No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Novel (2)

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

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On Sale: December 16, 2003
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-4000-7767-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY - Book 2

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 Ramotswe is the eminently sensible and cunning proprietor of the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana. In Tears of the Giraffe she tracks a wayward wife, uncovers an unscrupulous maid, and searches for an American man who disappeared into the plains many years ago. In the midst of resolving uncertainties, pondering her impending marriage to a good, kind man, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and the promotion of her talented secretary (a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, with a mark of 97 per cent), she also finds her family suddenly and unexpectedly increased by two.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's House

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, found it difficult to believe that Mma Ramotswe, the accomplished founder of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, had agreed to marry him. It was at the second time of asking; the first posing of the question, which had required immense courage on his part, had brought forth a refusal--gentle, and regretful--but a refusal nonetheless. After that, he had assumed that Mma Ramotswe would never remarry; that her brief and disastrous marriage to Note Mokoti, trumpeter and jazz aficionado, had persuaded her that marriage was nothing but a recipe for sorrow and suffering. After all, she was an independent-minded woman, with a business to run, and a comfortable house of her own in Zebra Drive. Why, he wondered, should a woman like that take on a man, when a man could prove to be difficult to manage once vows were exchanged and he had settled himself in her house? No, if he were in Mma Ramotswe's shoes, then he might well decline an offer of marriage, even from somebody as eminently reasonable and respectable as himself.

But then, on that noumenal evening, sitting with him on her verandah after he had spent the afternoon fixing her tiny white van, she had said yes. And she had given this answer in such a simple, unambiguously kind way, that he had been confirmed in his belief that she was one of the very best women in Botswana. That evening, when he returned home to his house near the old Defence Force Club, he had reflected on the enormity of his good fortune. Here he was, in his mid-forties, a man who had until that point been unable to find a suitable wife, now blessed with the hand of the one woman whom he admired more than any other. Such remarkable good fortune was almost inconceivable, and he wondered whether he would suddenly wake up from the delicious dream into which he seemed to have wandered.

Yet it was true. The next morning, when he turned on his bedside radio to hear the familiar sound of cattle bells with which Radio Botswana prefaced its morning broadcast, he realised that it had indeed happened and that unless she had changed her mind overnight, he was a man engaged to be married.

He looked at his watch. It was six o'clock, and the first light of the day was on the thorn tree outside his bedroom window. Smoke from morning fires, the fine wood smoke that sharpened the appetite, would soon be in the air, and he would hear the sound of people on the paths that criss-crossed the bush near his house; shouts of children on their way to school; men going sleepy-eyed to their work in the town; women calling out to one another; Africa waking up and starting the day. People arose early, but it would be best to wait an hour or so before he telephoned Mma Ramotswe, which would give her time to get up and make her morning cup of bush tea. Once she had done that, he knew that she liked to sit outside for half an hour or so and watch the birds on her patch of grass. There were hoopoes, with their black and white stripes, pecking at insects like little mechanical toys, and the strutting ring-neck doves, engaged in their constant wooing. Mma Ramotswe liked birds, and perhaps, if she were interested, he could build her an aviary. They could breed doves, maybe, or even, as some people did, something bigger, such as buzzards, though what they would do with buzzards once they had bred them was not clear. They ate snakes, of course, and that would be useful, but a dog was just as good a means of keeping snakes out of the yard.

When he was a boy out at Molepolole, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had owned a dog which had established itself as a legendary snake-catcher. It was a thin brown animal, with one or two white patches, and a broken tail. He had found it, abandoned and half-starved, at the edge of the village, and had taken it home to live with him at his grandmother's house. She had been unwilling to waste food on an animal that had no apparent function, but he had won her round and the dog had stayed. Within a few weeks it had proved its usefulness, killing three snakes in the yard and one in a neighbour's melon patch. From then on, its reputation was assured, and if anybody was having trouble with snakes they would ask Mr J.L.B. Matekoni to bring his dog round to deal with the problem.

The dog was preternaturally quick. Snakes, when they saw it coming, seemed to know that they were in mortal danger. The dog, hair bristling and eyes bright with excitement, would move towards the snake with a curious gait, as if it were standing on the tips of its claws. Then, when it was within a few feet of its quarry, it would utter a low growl, which the snake would sense as a vibration in the ground. Momentarily confused, the snake would usually begin to slide away, and it was at this point that the dog would launch itself forward and nip the snake neatly behind the head. This broke its back, and the struggle was over.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni knew that such dogs never reached old age. If they survived to the age of seven or eight, their reactions began to slow and the odds shifted slowly in favour of the snake. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's dog eventually fell victim to a banded cobra, and died within minutes of the bite. There was no dog who could replace him, but now . . . Well, this was just another possibility that opened up. They could buy a dog and choose its name together. Indeed, he would suggest that she choose both the dog and the name, as he was keen that Mma Ramotswe should not feel that he was trying to take all the decisions. In fact, he would be happy to take as few decisions as possible. She was a very competent woman, and he had complete confidence in her ability to run their life together, as long as she did not try to involve him in her detective business. That was simply not what he had in mind. She was the detective; he was the mechanic. That was how matters should remain.

He telephoned shortly before seven. Mma Ramotswe seemed pleased to hear from him and asked him, as was polite in the Setswana language, whether he had slept well.

"I slept very well," said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. "I dreamed all the night about that clever and beautiful woman who has agreed to marry me."

He paused. If she was going to announce a change of mind, then this was the time that she might be expected to do it.

Mma Ramotswe laughed. "I never remember what I dream," she said. "But if I did, then I am sure that I would remember dreaming about that first-class mechanic who is going to be my husband one day."

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni smiled with relief. She had not thought better of it, and they were still engaged.

"Today we must go to the President Hotel for lunch," he said. "We shall have to celebrate this important matter."

Mma Ramotswe agreed. She would be ready at twelve o'clock and afterwards, if it was convenient, perhaps he would allow her to visit his house to see what it was like. There would be two houses now, and they would have to choose one. Her house on Zebra Drive had many good qualities, but it was rather close to the centre of town and there was a case for being farther away. His house, near the old airfield, had a larger yard and was undoubtedly quieter, but was not far from the prison and was there not an overgrown graveyard nearby? That was a major factor; if she were alone in the house at night for any reason, it would not do to be too close to a graveyard. Not that Mma Ramotswe was superstitious; her theology was conventional and had little room for unquiet spirits and the like, and yet, and yet . . .

In Mma Ramotswe's view there was God, Modimo, who lived in the sky, more or less directly above Africa. God was extremely understanding, particularly of people like herself, but to break his rules, as so many people did with complete disregard, was to invite retribution. When they died, good people, such as Mma Ramotswe's father, Obed Ramotswe, were undoubtedly welcomed by God. The fate of the others was unclear, but they were sent to some terrible place--perhaps a bit like Nigeria, she thought--and when they acknowledged their wrongdoing they would be forgiven.

God had been kind to her, thought Mma Ramotswe. He had given her a happy childhood, even if her mother had been taken from her when she was a baby. She had been looked after by her father and her kind cousin and they had taught her what it was to give love--love which she had in turn given, over those few precious days, to her tiny baby. When the child's battle for life had ended, she had briefly wondered why God had done this to her, but in time she had understood. Now his kindness to her was manifest again, this time in the appearance of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, a good kind, man. God had sent her a husband.

After their celebration lunch in the President Hotel--a lunch at which Mr J.L.B. Matekoni ate two large steaks and Mma Ramotswe, who had a sweet tooth, dipped into rather more ice cream than she had originally intended--they drove off in Mr J.L.B. Matekoni's pickup truck to inspect his house.

"It is not a very tidy house," said Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, anxiously. "I try to keep it tidy, but that is a difficult thing for a man. There is a maid who comes in, but she makes it worse, I think. She is a very untidy woman."

"We can keep the woman who works for me," said Mma Ramotswe. "She is very good at everything. Ironing. Cleaning. Polishing. She is one of the best people in Botswana for all these tasks. We can find some other work for your person."

"And there are some rooms in this house that have got motor parts in them," added Mr J.L.B. Matekoni hurriedly. "Sometimes I have not had enough room at the garage and have had to store them in the house--interesting engines that I might need some day."

Mma Ramotswe said nothing. She now knew why Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had never invited her to the house before. His office at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors was bad enough, with all that grease and those calendars that the parts suppliers sent him. They were ridiculous calendars, in her view, with all those far-too-thin ladies sitting on tyres and leaning against cars. Those ladies were useless for everything. They would not be good for having children, and not one of them looked as if she had her school certificate, or even her standard six. They were useless, good-time girls, who only made men all hot and bothered, and that was no good to anybody. If only men knew what fools of them these bad girls made; but they did not know it and it was hopeless trying to point it out to them.

They arrived at the entrance to his driveway and Mma Ramotswe sat in the car while Mr J.L.B. Matekoni pushed open the silver-painted gate. She noted that the dustbin had been pushed open by dogs and that scraps of paper and other rubbish were lying about. If she were to move here--if--that would soon he stopped. In traditional Botswana society, keeping the yard in good order was a woman's responsibility, and she would certainly not wish to be associated with a yard like this.

They parked in front of the stoop, under a rough car shelter that Mr J.L.B. Matekoni had fashioned out of shade-netting. It was a large house by modern standards, built in a day when builders had no reason to worry about space. There was the whole of Africa in those days, most of it unused, and nobody bothered to save space. Now it was different, and people had begun to worry about cities and how they gobbled up the bush surrounding them. This house, a low, rather gloomy bungalow under a corrugated-tin roof, had been built for a colonial official in Protectorate days. The outer walls were plastered and whitewashed, and the floors were polished red cement, laid out in large squares. Such floors always seemed cool on the feet in the hot months, although for real comfort it was hard to better the beaten mud or cattle dung of traditional floors.

Mma Ramotswe looked about her. They were in the living room, into which the front door gave immediate entrance. There was a heavy suite of furniture--expensive in its day--but now looking distinctly down-at-heel. The chairs, which had wide wooden arms, were upholstered in red, and there was a table of black hardwood on which an empty glass and an ashtray stood. On the walls there was picture of a mountain, painted on dark velvet, a wooden kudu-head, and a small picture of Nelson Mandela. The whole effect was perfectly pleasing, thought Mma Ramotswe, although it certainly had that forlorn look so characteristic of an unmarried man's room.

"This is a very fine room," observed Mma Ramotswe.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni beamed with pleasure. "I try to keep this room tidy," he said. "It is important to have a special room for important visitors."

"Do you have any important visitors?" asked Mma Ramotswe.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni frowned. "There have been none so far," he said. "But it is always possible."

"Yes," agreed Mma Ramotswe. "One never knows."

She looked over her shoulder, towards a door that led into the rest of the house.

"The other rooms are that way?" she asked politely.

Mr J.L.B. Matekoni nodded. "That is the not-so-tidy part of the house," he said. "Perhaps we should look at it some other time."

Mma Ramotswe shook her head and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni realised that there was no escape. This was part and parcel of marriage, he assumed; there could be no secrets--everything had to be laid bare.
Alexander McCall Smith|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - Tears of the Giraffe

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.

Author Q&A

Q: You have written more than fifty books (from specialist titles such as FORENSIC ASPECTS OF SLEEP to children's books, including THE PERFECT HAMBURGER). Was THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY your first attempt at writing a mystery?

A: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is my first foray into this territory, although I do not think of it as a mystery. I like to think of it as a novel about a woman who happens to be a private detective. Mind you, I suppose that makes it a mystery ... of a sort.
 
Q: Your detective, Precious Ramotswe, is a wonderfully unique character—a Batswana woman of traditional build who decides to become a professional private detective. Is Precious based on someone that you knew when you lived in Botswana or is she a creation of your imagination?

A: There is no particular person upon whom Precious Ramotswe is based, but there is an incident. Years ago I was in Botswana, staying with friends in a small town called Mochudi. A woman in the town wished to give my friends a chicken to celebrate Botswana National Day. I watched as this woman—traditionally built, like Mma Ramotswe—chased the chicken round the yard and eventually caught it. She made a clucking noise as she ran. The chicken looked miserable. She looked very cheerful. At that moment I thought that I might write a book about a cheerful woman of traditional build.

Q: Did you know immediately that the story of Mma Ramotswe would be the basis for an entire series of novels?

A: No, I did not. What happened is that I became so fond of the character that I could not let her go. To leave her where she was at the end of the first novel would have been rather like getting up and leaving the room in the middle of a conversation—rather rude.

Q: It is rare for an author to explore the evolution from amateur sleuth to professional detective, but one of the most appealing aspects of Precious's character is that she doesn't always know what she's doing. In TEARS OF THE GIRAFFE (the sequel to THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY), she even sends away for an instructional manual, Principles of Private Detection. What interests you about "education of the detective"?

A: Mma Ramotswe sets up her agency without any relevant experience. However, she does have intuition—in abundance—and that is very much more important than anything she could learn from a book. In fact, the passages she cites from The Principles of Private Detection are ultimately not particularly helpful to her, the point being that a person without any training can achieve great things if he or she has natural intelligence and ability. In many African countries, including Botswana, people have great respect for books and for the learning they contain. I would hope to point out that this should not obscure the importance of real, practical wisdom.
 
Q: Although Mma Ramotswe is confronted by greed, lust, dishonesty, and murderous intent, these novels are rather optimistic and often humorous in tone. How do you maintain this rather delicate balance?

A: I think that many people living in Africa—in circumstances which are sometimes quite difficult—maintain that balance themselves, and with great dignity. I think that I merely reflect what is there in those fine people.

Q: In the Precious Ramotswe novels, Botswana emerges as a vivid character and a wonderful place to live. What do you hope that American readers will discover about Africa while reading these novels?

A: I very much hope that American readers will get a glimpse of the remarkable qualities of Botswana. It is a very special country and I think that it particularly chimes with many of the values which Americans feel very strongly about—respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtues in Africa—in particular, courtesy and a striking natural dignity.

Q: How have these books been received in Botswana? What about other parts of Africa?

A: I was recently in Botswana and I was delighted to find that people there liked the books. I was worried that they might have reservations about an outsider writing about their society. No. They appear to like the way in which their world is portrayed. I believe that they recognize themselves in them.

Q: You were born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and you have also lived in Botswana, the United States, and Edinburgh. In what ways have your international travels informed your writing?

A: The fact that I have been all over the world means that I tend to use a variety of locations for my work. I think it is important for a writer to see other societies and attempt to understand them. Of course, you have to be careful. It is easy to get things wrong. One might put palm trees in the wrong place, for example in New York.

Q: Do you see the Precious Ramotswe books within the context of the tradition of the classic African novel of writers like Isak Dinesen and Chinua Achebe? Or do you see them as a revamping of the mystery genre?

A: I think that these books might be difficult to put into any particular tradition. They are obviously about Africa, but they are very different from the works you mention. Some people say that they remind them of the novels of that great Indian writer R.K. Narayan, which is very flattering, but I suppose I can see the similarities in the world which his and my books portray.

Q: Anthony Minghella, who has directed The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley recently optioned THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY to be a major motion picture. Will you be involved in the production in any way?

A: I hope that this goes ahead as planned. They have shown me a script, which I read with interest. They said that I could come and see the shooting, one of these days. I shall stand well back and I suspect that I shall say nothing.

Q: The Precious Ramotswe books have a devoted following. Have you ever had the opportunity to meet with the Mma Ramotswe fan club that is based in New York? What question are you most frequently asked by your fans?

A: There seem to be many fans of the books in the U.S.A. I receive wonderfully warm letters from American readers, which I greatly enjoy. As far as New York is concerned, there is a splendid group of readers whom I met when I was last there. They love Mma Ramotswe and she would love them too. They, like many other readers, ask me when Mma Ramotswe and Mr J.L.B. Matekoni will eventually get married. I must think about that.

Q: Next spring, Pantheon Books will publish the fourth in the series of the Precious Ramotswe novels. Will there be other books in the series as well?

A: I hope so. I am writing the fifth at the moment and I am thinking of the sixth.

Q: In addition to writing novels, you are also a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, and as if that wasn't enough to keep you busy, you also conduct a symphony. How do you find the time to do it all?

A: I struggle to find the time to do things. I have many commitments, but writing these books is such a pleasure for me that I shall always find the time, somehow. I don't conduct a symphony—I play in a  distinctly amateur orchestra, of which I am the co-founder. I play the bassoon, but not the entire instrument, as I dislike the very high notes and stop at the high D, which I think is quite high enough. This orchestra is pretty awful, and that is why it bears the name The Really Terrible Orchestra. This brings it a wide and enthusiastic following. Recently we had a request from an American amateur orchestra to use our name. We said of course. So somewhere in the U.S. there is a bad amateur orchestra called The Really Terrible Orchestra. They will go far, perhaps.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

“The Miss Marple of Botswana.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Smart and sassy . . . Precious’ progress is charted in passages that have the power to amuse or shock or touch the heart, sometimes all at once.” –Los Angeles Times

“I haven’t read anything with such unalloyed pleasure for a long time.” –Anthony Daniels, The Sunday Telegraph
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, the second novel in the acclaimed Precious Ramotswe series.

About the Guide

Tears of the Giraffe finds Precious Ramotswe firmly established as Botswana’s first and only lady detective. She’s not getting rich, but she’s not losing money either, and under the imaginary ledger for happiness, her account is full. Indeed, she is about to marry Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is a thoroughly honest and loving man, a man whose generous impulses not only send him to the local orphanage to fix a water pump free of charge but also, somehow, bring him home with two small children. Now Mma Ramotswe has not only a husband but a family to care for, something she had not allowed herself to hope for after her own child died at birth.

But into this rich, full life comes Mrs. Curtain, an American whose son disappeared in the Kalahari desert ten years ago. Michael Curtain had been living in a commune, working on finding a better way to grow vegetables in the harsh land of Botswana, when he vanished one night without warning and without a trace. Stricken with grief, Mrs. Curtain has searched in every way possible for years, exhausting every avenue of inquiry, until the American Embassy recommended Mma Ramotswe. And even though Mma Ramotswe knows that old unsolved cases such as the one Mrs. Curtain brings her are what is known in the business as “stale enquiries,” she agrees to try to discover what happened to Michael Curtain.

Given her own experience of losing a child, she can empathize with Mrs. Curtain. And in many ways empathy—between Mma Ramotswe and Mrs. Curtain, between Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and the orphan children, even between wheelchair-bound Motholeli and the engine of a van—is the central theme of Alexander McCall Smith’s extraordinary novel. The idea that we are all “brothers and sisters” is what guides the story, sustains the lives of its remarkable characters, and offers readers so much more than the satisfaction of seeing a mystery solved.

About the Author

Alexander McCall Smith is a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He is the author of over fifty books on a wide range of subjects, including specialist titles such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana, children’s books such as The Perfect Hamburger, and a collection of stories called Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

Discussion Guides

1. What distinguishes Tears of the Giraffe from most other mysteries? What qualities make it such a charming and affirmative book? In what ways does Mma Ramotswe differ from such archetypal detectives as Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlowe?

2. Mrs. Curtain says that when she first came to Africa, she had “the usual ideas about it—a hotchpotch of images of big game and savannah and Kilimanjaro rising out of the cloud . . . famines and civil wars and potbellied, half-naked children staring at the camera, sunk in hopelessness” [p. 27]. How does her experience of Africa alter these ideas? Why does she feel that “everything about my own country seemed so shoddy and superficial when held up against what I saw in Africa” [p. 29]? What deeper and truer understanding of Africa does the novel itself offer readers who might share Mrs. Curtain’s preconceptions?

3. Mma Ramotswe knows that Mrs. Curtain’s case—finding out what happened to her son ten years ago—is what is referred to in The Principles of Private Detection as “a stale enquiry” [p. 61]. Why does she accept the case, in spite of that? What special empathy does she feel for Mrs. Curtain?

4. When Mr J.L.B. Matekoni wonders why his apprentice mechanics take everything for granted, a friend explains, “Young people these days cannot show enthusiasm. . . . It’s not considered smart to be enthusiastic” [pp. 80-81]. Is this an accurate observation? Where else does the novel demonstrate this kind of understanding of human behavior?

5. Why does Mr J.L.B. Matekoni allow himself to be talked into adopting the orphans? What specific memory enables him to open his heart to them? What does this act say about his character?

6. Mma Ramotswe thinks that “the Americans were very clever; they sent rockets into space and invented machines which could think more quickly than any human being alive, but all this cleverness could also make them blind” [p. 113]. What is it that she thinks Americans are blind to? Is she right? How do her own values differ from those of mainstream America?

7. Tears of the Giraffe poses some difficult moral dilemmas for Mma Ramotswe. Should one always tell the truth, or is lying sometimes the better choice? Does a moral end justify immoral means? Which cases raise these questions? How do Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi answer them?

8. When Mma Ramotswe prepares her accounts for the end of the financial year, she finds that “she had not made a lot of money, but she had not made a loss, and she had been happy and entertained. That counted for infinitely more than a vigorously healthy balance sheet. In fact, she thought, annual accounts should include an item specifically headed Happiness, alongside expenses and receipts and the like. That figure in her accounts would be a very large one, she thought” [p. 225]. What enables Mma Ramotswe to live happily? How would most American CEOs and CFOs respond to the accounting innovation she suggests in the above passage?

9. How is Mma Ramotswe able to solve the mystery of Mrs. Curtain’s son’s disappearance? What role does her intuition play in figuring out what happened to him? Why is this information so important for Mrs. Curtain?

10. When Mma Potokwane tells Mr J.L.B. Matekoni that their pump makes a noise, “as if it is in pain,” he replies that “engines do feel pain. . . . They tell us of their pain by making a noise” [p. 77]. Later, he tells his apprentice, “you cannot force metal. . . . If you force metal, it fights back” [p. 198]. What do these statements reveal about Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s character? About his approach to being a mechanic? Are his assertions merely fanciful or do they reveal some deeper truth about the relationship between the human and the inanimate world?

11. One of Mma Makutsi’s classmates at the Botswana Secretarial College tells her that “men choose women for jobs on the basis of their looks. They choose the beautiful ones and give them jobs. To the others, they say: We are very sorry. All the jobs have gone” [p. 109]. In what ways does Tears of the Giraffe suggest ways around the stifling roles dictated by “brute biology”? What examples does it provide of girls and women overcoming the restrictions placed on them and assuming traditionally male roles?

12. The housemother of the orphanage explains to Motholeli, “We must look after other people. . . . Other people are our brothers and sisters. If they are unhappy, then we are unhappy. If they are hungry, then we are hungry” [p. 124]. In what ways does the novel demonstrate this ethic in action? How is this way of relating to other people different from the starker examples of American individualism?

13. In what ways are Mr J.L.B. Matekoni and Mma Ramotswe well-suited to each other? How do they treat each other in the novel? How do they complement each other?

14. In what ways is Tears of the Giraffe as much about family relationships as it is about solving crimes? How does the novel provide emotionally satisfying resolutions to the parental pain that both Mrs. Curtain and Mma Ramotswe have suffered?

Suggested Readings

Robert Barnard, The Bones in the Attic; J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Deborah Crombie, And Justice There is None; Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood; Peter Godwin, Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa; Nadine Gordimer, Six Feet of the Country; Tony Hillerman, The Wailing Wind; J. Nozipo Maraire, Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter; Melville Davisson Post, The Sleuth of St. James’ Street; Peter Robinson, Aftermath.
Alexander McCall Smith

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Alexander McCall Smith - Tears of the Giraffe

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