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

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: 978-1-4000-7765-6
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Synopsis

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY - Book 1

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. 

This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency received two Booker Judges’ Special Recommendations and was voted one of the International Books of the Year and the Millennium by the Times Literary Supplement.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

The Daddy

Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill. These were its assets: a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, and an old typewriter. Then there was a teapot, in which Mma Ramotswe--the only lady private detective in Botswana--brewed redbush tea. And three mugs--one for herself, one for her secretary, and one for the client. What else does a detective agency really need? Detective agencies rely on human intuition and intelligence, both of which Mma Ramotswe had in abundance. No inventory would ever include those, of course.

But there was also the view, which again could appear on no inventory. How could any such list describe what one saw when one looked out from Mma Ramotswe's door? To the front, an acacia tree, the thorn tree which dots the wide edges of the Kalahari; the great white thorns, a warning; the olive-grey leaves, by contrast, so delicate. In its branches, in the late afternoon, or in the cool of the early morning, one might see a Go-Away Bird, or hear it, rather. And beyond the acacia, over the dusty road, the roofs of the town under a cover of trees and scrub bush; on the horizon, in a blue shimmer of heat, the hills, like improbable, overgrown termite mounds.

Everybody called her Mma Ramotswe, although if people had wanted to be formal, they would have addressed her as Mme Mma Ramotswe. This is the right thing for a person of stature, but which she had never used of herself. So it was always Mma Ramotswe, rather than Precious Ramotswe, a name which very few people employed.

She was a good detective, and a good woman. A good woman in a good country, one might say. She loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials. I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.

In idle moments, when there were no pressing matters to be dealt with, and when everybody seemed to be sleepy from the heat, she would sit under her acacia tree. It was a dusty place to sit, and the chickens would occasionally come and peck about her feet, but it was a place which seemed to encourage thought. It was here that Mma Ramotswe would contemplate some of the issues which, in everyday life, may so easily be pushed to one side.

Everything, thought Mma Ramotswe, has been something before. Here I am, the only lady private detective in the whole of Botswana, sitting in front of my detective agency. But only a few years ago there was no detective agency, and before that, before there were even any buildings here, there were just the acacia trees, and the riverbed in the distance, and the Kalahari over there, so close.

In those days there was no Botswana even, just the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and before that again there was Khama's Country, and lions with the dry wind in their manes. But look at it now: a detective agency, right here in Gaborone, with me, the fat lady detective, sitting outside and thinking these thoughts about how what is one thing today becomes quite another thing tomorrow.

Mma Ramotswe set up the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency with the proceeds of the sale of her father's cattle. He had owned a big herd, and had no other children; so every single beast, all one hundred and eighty of them, including the white Brahmin bulls whose grandparents he had bred himself, went to her. The cattle were moved from the cattle post, back to Mochudi where they waited, in the dust, under the eyes of the chattering herd boys, until the livestock agent came.

They fetched a good price, as there had been heavy rains that year, and the grass had been lush. Had it been the year before, when most of that southern part of Africa had been wracked by drought, it would have been a different matter. People had dithered then, wanting to hold on to their cattle, as without your cattle you were naked; others, feeling more desperate, sold, because the rains had failed year after year and they had seen the animals become thinner and thinner. Mma Ramotswe was pleased that her father's illness had prevented his making any decision, as now the price had gone up and those who had held on were well rewarded.

"I want you to have your own business," he said to her on his death bed. "You'll get a good price for the cattle now. Sell them and buy a business. A butchery maybe. A bottle store. Whatever you like."

She held her father's hand and looked into the eyes of the man she loved beyond all others, her Daddy, her wise Daddy, whose lungs had been filled with dust in those mines and who had scrimped and saved to make life good for her.

It was difficult to talk through her tears, but she managed to say: "I'm going to set up a detective agency. Down in Gaborone. It will be the best one in Botswana. The No. 1 Agency."

For a moment her father's eyes opened wide and it seemed as if he was struggling to speak.

"But . . . but . . ."

But he died before he could say anything more, and Mma Ramotswe fell on his chest and wept for all the dignity, love and suffering that died with him.

She had a sign painted in bright colours, which was then set up just off the Lobatse Road, on the edge of town, pointing to the small building she had purchased: the no. 1 ladies' detective agency. for all confidential matters and enquiries. satisfaction guaranteed for all parties. under personal management.

There was considerable public interest in the setting up of her agency. There was an interview on Radio Botswana, in which she thought she was rather rudely pressed to reveal her qualifications, and a rather more satisfactory article in The Botswana News, which drew attention to the fact that she was the only lady private detective in the country. This article was cut out, copied, and placed prominently on a small board beside the front door of the agency.

After a slow start, she was rather surprised to find that her services were in considerable demand. She was consulted about missing husbands, about the creditworthiness of potential business partners, and about suspected fraud by employees. In almost every case, she was able to come up with at least some information for the client; when she could not, she waived her fee, which meant that virtually nobody who consulted her was dissatisfied. People in Botswana liked to talk, she discovered, and the mere mention of the fact that she was a private detective would let loose a positive outpouring of information on all sorts of subjects. It flattered people, she concluded, to be approached by a private detective, and this effectively loosened their tongues. This happened with Happy Bapetsi, one of her earlier clients. Poor Happy! To have lost your daddy and then found him, and then lost him again . . .

"I used to have a happy life," said Happy Bapetsi. "A very happy life. Then this thing happened, and I can't say that any- more."

Mma Ramotswe watched her client as she sipped her bush tea. Everything you wanted to know about a person was written in the face, she believed. It's not that she believed that the shape of the head was what counted--even if there were many who still clung to that belief; it was more a question of taking care to scrutinise the lines and the general look. And the eyes, of course; they were very important. The eyes allowed you to see right into a person, to penetrate their very essence, and that was why people with something to hide wore sunglasses indoors. They were the ones you had to watch very carefully.

Now this Happy Bapetsi was intelligent; that was immediately apparent. She also had few worries--this was shown by the fact that there were no lines on her face, other than smile lines of course. So it was man trouble, thought Mma Ramotswe. Some man has turned up and spoilt everything, destroying her happiness with his bad behaviour.

"Let me tell you a little about myself first," said Happy Bapetsi. "I come from Maun, you see, right up on the Okavango. My mother had a small shop and I lived with her in the house at the back. We had lots of chickens and we were very happy.

"My mother told me that my Daddy had left a long time ago, when I was still a little baby. He had gone off to work in Bulawayo and he had never come back. Somebody had written to us--another Motswana living there--to say that he thought that my Daddy was dead, but he wasn't sure. He said that he had gone to see somebody at Mpilo Hospital one day and as he was walking along a corridor he saw them wheeling somebody out on a stretcher and that the dead person on the stretcher looked remarkably like my Daddy. But he couldn't be certain.

"So we decided that he was probably dead, but my mother did not mind a great deal because she had never really liked him very much. And of course I couldn't even remember him, so it did not make much difference to me.

"I went to school in Maun at a place run by some Catholic missionaries. One of them discovered that I could do arithmetic rather well and he spent a lot of time helping me. He said that he had never met a girl who could count so well.

"I suppose it was very odd. I could see a group of figures and I would just remember it. Then I would find that I had added the figures in my head, even without thinking about it. It just came very easily--I didn't have to work at it at all.

"I did very well in my exams and at the end of the day I went off to Gaborone and learned how to be a bookkeeper. Again it was very simple for me; I could look at a whole sheet of figures and understand it immediately. Then, the next day, I could remember every figure exactly and write them all down if I needed to.

"I got a job in the bank and I was given promotion after promotion. Now I am the No. 1 subaccountant and I don't think I can go any further because all the men are worried that I'll make them look stupid. But I don't mind. I get very good pay and I can finish all my work by three in the afternoon, sometimes earlier. I go shopping after that. I have a nice house with four rooms and I am very happy. To have all that by the time you are thirty-eight is good enough, I think."

Mma Ramotswe smiled. "That is all very interesting. You're right. You've done well."

"I'm very lucky," said Happy Bapetsi. "But then this thing happened. My Daddy arrived at the house."

Mma Ramotswe drew in her breath. She had not expected this; she had thought it would be a boyfriend problem. Fathers were a different matter altogether.

"He just knocked on the door," said Happy Bapetsi. "It was a Saturday afternoon and I was taking a rest on my bed when I heard his knocking. I got up, went to the door, and there was this man, about sixty or so, standing there with his hat in his hands. He told me that he was my Daddy, and that he had been living in Bulawayo for a long time but was now back in Botswana and had come to see me.

"You can understand how shocked I was. I had to sit down, or I think I would have fainted. In the meantime, he spoke. He told me my mother's name, which was correct, and he said that he was sorry that he hadn't been in touch before. Then he asked if he could stay in one of the spare rooms, as he had nowhere else to go.

"I said that of course he could. In a way I was very excited to see my Daddy and I thought that it would be good to be able to make up for all those lost years and to have him staying with me, particularly since my poor mother died. So I made a bed for him in one of the rooms and cooked him a large meal of steak and potatoes, which he ate very quickly. Then he asked for more.

"That was about three months ago. Since then, he has been living in that room and I have been doing all the work for him. I make his breakfast, cook him some lunch, which I leave in the kitchen, and then make his supper at night. I buy him one bottle of beer a day and have also bought him some new clothes and a pair of good shoes. All he does is sit in his chair outside the front door and tell me what to do for him next."

"Many men are like that," interrupted Mma Ramotswe.

Happy Bapetsi nodded. "This one is especially like that. He has not washed a single cooking pot since he arrived and I have been getting very tired running after him. He also spends a lot of my money on vitamin pills and biltong.

"I would not resent this, you know, except for one thing. I do not think that he is my real Daddy. I have no way of proving this, but I think that this man is an impostor and that he heard about our family from my real Daddy before he died and is now just pretending. I think he is a man who has been looking for a retirement home and who is very pleased because he has found a good one."

Mma Ramotswe found herself staring in frank wonderment at Happy Bapetsi. There was no doubt but that she was telling the truth; what astonished her was the effrontery, the sheer, naked effrontery of men. How dare this person come and impose on this helpful, happy person! What a piece of chicanery, of fraud! What a piece of outright theft in fact!

"Can you help me?" asked Happy Bapetsi. "Can you find out whether this man is really my Daddy? If he is, then I will be a dutiful daughter and put up with him. If he is not, then I should prefer for him to go somewhere else."

Mma Ramotswe did not hesitate. "I'll find out," she said. "It may take me a day or two, but I'll find out!"

Of course, it was easier said than done. There were blood tests these days, but she doubted very much whether this person would agree to that. No, she would have to try something more subtle, something that would show beyond any argument whether he was the Daddy or not. She stopped in her line of thought. Yes! There was something biblical about this story. What, she thought, would Solomon have done?
Alexander McCall Smith|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

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 Botswana 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 last 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

“The author’s prose has the merits of simplicity, euphony and precision. His descriptions leave one as if standing in the Botswana landscape. This is art that conceals art. I haven’t read anything with such alloyed pleasure for a long time.” –Anthony Daniels, The Sunday Telegraph
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

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

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the acclaimed novel that introduces Precious Ramotswe, one of the most unique and appealing characters in the entire mystery genre.

About the Guide

When Precious Ramotswe decides to use the money her beloved father left her to open the first ever Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana, everyone is skeptical. “Can women be detectives?” asks the bank’s lawyer. Mma Ramotswe herself feels unsure of her success. After all, her only assets are a tiny white van, two desks, two chairs, a telephone, an old typewriter, a teapot, and three teacups. But she does possess the intangible assets of intuition and intelligence. These she has in great supply, along with perseverance, a keen knowledge of the human mind and heart, a steadfast sense of right and wrong, and a personality that inspires trust and loquaciousness in nearly all who meet her. What she also has is a deep love for Africa generally and for Botswana and its people especially. “They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries of their lives. That is what I am called to do” [p. 4].

These mysteries aren’t the standard stuff of detective novels. There are no bludgeoned millionaires or murdered sexpots in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe’s cases range from exposing a freeloader posing as a father, to discovering whether or not a young Indian girl has a boyfriend, to determining the legitimacy of a worker’s injury claim, to revealing the real reason behind a doctor’s inconsistent performance. Mundane concerns, by the standards of most American mysteries, but much of the charm of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency lies in just this quality of ordinariness–the problems that ordinary people confront in the course of their everyday lives. The threat of something more violent, more sinister, appears when a young boy goes missing and Mma Ramotswe suspects he has fallen victim to witch doctors. This crime will bring Mma Ramotswe face-to-face with one of Africa’s most frightful traditions–the use of human bones in the making of muti (medicine).

Throughout, readers are treated to Mma Ramotswe’s penetrating observations on human behavior–“It was curious how some people had a highly developed sense of guilt, she thought, while others had none. Some people would agonize over minor slips or mistakes on their part, while others would feel quite unmoved by their own gross acts of betrayal or dishonesty” [p. 125]–as well as her trenchant and often humorous assessments of the failings of men, her unflinching struggle for gender equity, her keen love for her country and its people, and the warmth, generosity, and intelligence of her expansive spirit.

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 rage 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. Unlike in most other mysteries, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Mma Ramotswe solves a number of small crimes, rather than a single major one. How does this affect the narrative pacing of the novel? What other unique features distinguish The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency from the conventional mystery novel?

2. What makes Precious Ramotswe such a charming protagonist? What kind of woman is she? How is she different from the usual detective? Why does she feel “called” to help her fellow Africans “solve the mysteries of their lives” [p. 4]?

3. What is surprising about the nature of the cases Mma Ramotswe is hired to solve? By what means does Alexander McCall Smith sustain the reader’s interest, in the absence of the kind of tension, violence, and suspense that drive most mysteries?

4. Mma Ramotswe’s first client, Happy Bapetsi, is worried that the man who claims to be her father is a fraud taking advantage of her generosity. “All he does,” she says, “is sit in his chair outside the front door and tell me what to do for him next.” To which Mma Ramotswe replies, “Many men are like that” [p. 10]. What is Mma Ramotswe’s view of men generally? How do men behave in the novel?

5. Why does Mma Ramotswe feel it is so important to include her father’s life story in the novel? What does Obed Ramotswe’s life reveal about the history of Africa and of South Africa? What does it reveal about the nature and cost of working in the mines in South Africa?

6. Mma Ramotswe purchases a manual on how to be a detective. It advises one to pay attention to hunches. “Hunches are another form of knowledge” [p. 79]. How does intuition help Mma Ramotswe solve her cases?

7. When Mma Ramotswe decides to start a detective agency, a lawyer tells her “It’s easy to lose money in business, especially when you don’t know anything about what you’re doing. . . . And anyway, can women be detectives?” To which Mma Ramotswe answers, “Women are the ones who know what’s going on. They are the ones with eyes. Have you not read Agatha Christie?” [p. 61]. Is she right in suggesting women are more perceptive than men? Where in the novel do we see Mma Ramotswe’s own extraordinary powers of observation? How does she comically undercut the lawyer’s arrogance in this scene?

8. As Mma Ramotswe wonders if Mma Malatsi was somehow involved in her husband’s death and whether wanting someone dead made one a murderer in God’s eyes, she thinks to herself: “It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin” [p. 85]. What philosophy of life is Mma Ramotswe articulating here? Why do the ongoing daily events of life give her this sense of peace and stability?

9. Why does Mma Ramotswe marry Note? Why does this act seem so out of character for her? In what ways does her love for an attractive and physically abusive man make her a deeper and more complicated character? How does her marriage to Note change her?

10. Mma Ramotswe imagines retiring back in Mochudi, buying some land with her cousins, growing melons, and living life in such a way that “every morning she could sit in front of her house and sniff at the wood-smoke and look forward to spending the day talking with her friends. How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, and who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eating grass? None, in her view; none at all” [p. 162]. Is Mma Ramotswe’s critique of white people on the mark or is she stereotyping? What makes her sense of what is important, and what brings happiness, so refreshing? What other differences between black and white cultures does the novel make apparent?

11. Mma Ramotswe does not want Africa to change, to become thoroughly modern: “She did not want her people to become like everybody else, soulless, selfish, forgetful of what it means to be an African, or, worse still, ashamed of Africa” [p. 215]. But what aspects of traditional African culture trouble her? How does she regard the traditional African attitude toward women, marriage, family duty, and witchcraft? Is there a contradiction in her relationship to “old” Africa?

12. How surprising is Mme Ramotswe’s response to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s marriage proposal? How appropriate is the ending of the novel?

13. Alexander McCall Smith has both taught and written about criminal law. In what ways does in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency draw upon this knowledge? How are lawyers and the police characterized in the novel?

14. Is in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency a feminist novel? Does the fact that its author is a man complicate such a reading? How well does Alexander McCall Smith represent a woman’s character and consciousness in Mma Ramotswe?

15. Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe books have been praised for their combination of apparent simplicity with a high degree of sophistication. In what ways does in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency have the appeal of simple storytelling? In what ways is it sophisticated? What does it suggest about the larger issues of how to live one’s life, how to behave in society, how to be happy?

Suggested Readings

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express; J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace; 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; Virginia Hamilton, The Mystery of Drear House; Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers; J. Nozipo Maraire, Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter; Melville Davisson Post, The Sleuth of St. James’ St.; Robert Van Gulik, The Emperor’s Pearl.

Teacher's Guide



DISCUSSION AND WRITING

Structure and Plot:

1.The opening chapter of the novel introduces us to Precious Ramotswe and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. What qualities are emphasized as important for success as a detective?

2.In Chapter 2, why does the author switch to the first person and have Obed Ramotswe narrate the chapter? What specific insights does this technique allow the reader?

3.How is Chapter 2 a description of the life of an “ordinary person?” What is the author implying about the value of life?

4.How does Mma Ramotswe’s personality affect her outlook on her job, where she lives, and the people with whom she encounters?

5.Why does the author use a third-person narration in this story? Would the novel be more effective if Mma Ramotswe narrated the entire story?

6.Mma Ramotswe receives a letter from Ernest Molai Pakotati about the kidnapping of his son. Do you think there is any connection between the voice she hears calling her name at 3:04 am and this case? Whose voice is it? Why does she awake in terror?

7.Although Mma Ramotswe proves that Kremlin Busang is a philandering husband, his wife, Alice Busang is furious at Mma Ramotswe. Why? Would there have been a better way to solve this particular case? How does Alice Busang act as a foil for the type of woman Mma Ramotswe strives to be?

8.How does the incident and meeting with Charlie Gotso reflect the social hierarchy lurking beneath the surface of Botswana society and politics?

9.Hector Lepodise’s refuses to pay the insurance company for an employee injury that he does not believe the specific employee sustained. How does Madam Ramotswe expose the truth? Are stereotypes employed by the author in this incident? If so, how?


Character and Conflict

1.In the novel’s opening, Mma Ramotswe states that she loves Africa “for all its trials” (p.4). How are these trials analogous to the trials in her personal life?

2.Notice when Mr. Smith uses the name “Precious” to refer to the novel’s protagonist and when he uses the more formal “Mma Ramotswe.” What does this tell the reader about the character herself?

3.Early in the text, Mma Ramotswe asks herself, “What would Solomon have done?” (p.11). Who was Solomon, and why does the author reference him in the book? What parallels can you draw between Solomon and Mma Ramotswe?

4.How does the author humanize Mma Ramotswe? What are some of her personal foibles?

5.What is the quality or characteristic that Mma Ramotswe values above all else? How are the individual cases and solutions to those cases structured around these qualities?

6.How are women in the story depicted as far more intelligent than they are credited? Discuss this in light of the old Setswana poem on page 34.

7.The cousin who comes to take care of Precious was abandoned by her husband because she was barren. How does this character rise above her station and the quiet contempt with which she is treated? Why do you think she is never named?

8.Precious Ramotswe wins the art contest sponsored by The Museum in Gaborone but feels compelled to tell the Minister that a mistake has been made on the label of the picture. How does this incident illustrate her role as a “moral compass” in the novel?

9.After her cousin marries and Precious Ramotswe turns 16, she goes to live with them. She solves her first case while working for the bus company. Describe the case and the personal qualities Precious employs to solve it.

10.Why does Precious follow Note Mokoti off the bus when he departs? Does she know the kind of man he is before she marries him? Why does she go against her father’s wishes and marry Note? What causes this apparent rebellion on her part?

11.After her father dies, Precious Ramotswe sets up the Detective Agency. Why does she choose to pursue this type of business?

12.What clues aid Precious Ramotswe in finding out what happened to Mma Malatsi’s missing husband?

13.Does Nandira Patel actually outsmart Mma Ramotswe? How?

14.Mma Pekwane approaches Mma Ramotswe because she believes her husband has stolen a car and she wants it returned to its rightful owner without her husband knowing. How does Madam Ramotswe’s solution to this problem display her ingenuity and respect for an individual’s privacy?

15.Why do you believe Mma Ramotswe is, initially, and throughout most of the novel, opposed to marrying again?

16.Who are some of the other main characters in the story that share Mma Ramotswe’s personal values system?

17.How does Mma Ramotswe achieve fame, recognition, and respect within her community in Gaborone?

18.How is Mma Ramotswe an independent woman? Cite examples.

19.Why, after saying she will never marry again, does Precious Ramotswe accept Mr. JLB Matekoni’s proposal at the end of the novel?

Themes and Motifs

1.What sort of relationship is there between whites and blacks in the novel? Is it consistent or on an individual level (see page 30 for an optimistic view of whites)? How does Botswana’s experiences since independence contrast to South Africa’s experience?
2.The discovery in Botswana of three of the world’s richest diamond mines was an economic stroke of luck for the country. However, what does Obed Ramotswe’s description of his years working in the mines say about the political and social inequalities that existed in Africa?

3.How are the lessons Precious learns about boys in Sunday school valuable in later life?

4.How do the weekly visits Precious makes to her father’s home and their discussions underscore the quality of her father’s judgment?

5.How does Alexander McCall Smith heighten the tension and fear during the abduction of Thobiso (son of the Katsana Village teacher)?

6.How does the parable about the calf relate to the kidnapping of Thobiso?

7.The landscape described during Mma Ramotswe’s trip to find the witch doctor is described very differently than in other sections of the novel. How is the landscape description mirror the situation and characters’ feelings?

8.How does the author integrate the idea of feminism and chauvinism into the narrative?
9.What do we learn about the political situation of Botswana?
10.How is religion depicted? What are differences the between Mma Ramotswe praying to God for the souls of her baby and her father versus the practice of witchcraft that is denounced but still practiced in secret?


Setting and Society:

1.The novel takes place primarily in the capital city of Gaborone. Describe her home and the general character of this city.

2.How does the physical topography and geography of Africa affect the story?

3.What is Mma Ramotswe’s place within society? Do the people of Gaborone respect her? Why or why not?

4.How did Mma Ramotswe fund her detective agency? Why was it considered odd for a woman to create a business like this on her own?

5.What is the educational system like in Botswana? Did Mma Ramotswe attend school? How does her education differ from a more Westernized educational system?

6.Alexander McCall Smith effortlessly integrates African history, as well as that of Botswana, into the story. In what ways does the success of Botswana as a nation compared to the failures of other African nations parallel the successes of Mma Ramotswe compared to what people think / expect to happen?


VOCABULARY

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 last 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.

BEYOND THE BOOK

* A major theme of Mr. Smith’s novel is how history, individual and general, affects the characters of his text. For instance, Mma Ramotswe’s father dies because he has worked in the South African coalmines for nearly his entire life. In this major plot development, the reader is told several things: The economy of Botswana may rely on diamonds, but all of its people cannot be employed by this industry; other safe work is difficult to find; hard work will often pay off only a generation later. Research a particular aspect of the history of Botswana — climate, politics, or even economy — and discuss how Mr. Smith uses it in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to add a degree of realism to this fictional story.
  
* Research and consider contemporary implications for the following:
1.The AIDS epidemic in Africa.
2.America’s foreign policy and aid to Africa; include how this policy affect the world views of Africans and how Africans see the world
3.Identify Africa’s attempts for self-sufficiency and describe its economic policies and goals. How would an investor view Botswana?
4.Research the leadership of Botswana. How does Botswana’s government today reflect the government of the past? The future? Is the present government doing a good job?
 
History of Botswana
 
The recent history of Botswana, a central South African country smaller than Texas, but larger than California, hinges on gaining independence in 1966 from the United Kingdom. Under the British, the country had been known as the Bechuanaland protectorate. As a reader can tell from the story, Botswana’s relatively recent independence and success, due in large part to the country’s development of extensive diamond reserves, is a source of great pride among its citizens. Thus, Mma Ramotswe’s depiction of Botswana as a stable, highly fortunate beacon of hope on the all-to-often tumultuous landscape of Africa is more than just a fictional creation; it is reality.
Previous to the British occupation of Botswana, the region had known many African as well as European visitors. Frequently threatened by these visitors, natives in the region banded together under chief Khama II as well as subsequent leaders to drive out the Zulus, Ndebele, Afrikaners, and Germans. The point should not be lost, then, that natives of Botswana were and are not isolated from the rest of Africa and the world. This small country of an estimated one and one half million people has a thriving capital in Gaborone, a democratically elected legislature that adheres to a constitution over thirty years old, and a beautiful country that includes hills, deserts, rivers, and marshlands.

Internet Resources
Official website of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
http://www.no1ladiesdetective.com

Government of Botswana
http://www.gov.bw/home.html

Botswanian Culture
http://www.namasthenri.com/botswana/culture.html

Facts about Botswana, its environs and culture
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/africa/botswana

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST

Other Titles of Interest
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Paperback | 0-679-72475-3 | 480 pages

Born Free by Joy Adamson
Paperback | 0-375-71438-3 | 224 pages

King Solomon’s Mines by H. G Haggard
Paperback | 0-8129-6629-5| 304 pages

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Paperback | 0-385-47454-7 | 224 pages


ABOUT THIS GUIDE

This Teacher’s Guide was produced by Kathryne Speaker, Ed.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Language Sciences at The College of New Jersey. She is the Director of the Graduate Reading Program at the college and teaches courses in Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

Alexander McCall Smith

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