Sunday, May 23, 2021

the last book I read

Tears Of The Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.

Precious Ramotswe is a woman of unusual talents. She runs her own detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, called the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. There is, as far as we know, no No. 2. Mma Ramotswe is a woman of keen intuition and intelligence, has built up a solid reputation for herself, and in general things seem to be going pretty well. The same goes for her personal life, where she has recently become engaged to Mr. JLB Matekoni, the proprietor of Speedy Motors, a kind and diligent man, slightly older than her, but solid and reliable and with his own business. 

Mma Ramotswe and Mr JLB Matekoni are in the early stages of planning their wedding and working out how to bring their two separate households together. Both are old enough to be aware that some degree of compromise will be required, though Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to accommodate Mr JLB Matekoni's habit of setting aside whole rooms for the dismantlement of and tinkering with various interesting engines. In the meantime, there are matters to be attended to in their respective businesses.

Mma Ramotswe's next client is an American woman, Andrea Curtin, who is looking for some information about what happened to her son, Michael, who spent his late teenage years working on a sort of development project/commune in Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert before disappearing in mysterious circumstances and never being found. This was a decade or so ago and the Curtins have long since returned to their previous life in America, but Mrs. Curtin finds herself reassessing some priorities in the wake of the recent death of her husband and has returned to Botswana for one final crack at finding out the truth. Mma Ramotswe finds herself sympathetic to Mrs. Curtin's loss and agrees to take the case.

While Mma Ramotswe busies herself with some preliminary enquiries, a few other things are happening: another case arrives at the agency, this one a seemingly simple case of adultery which Mma Ramotswe delegates to her secretary and sleuthular apprentice Mma Makutsi. Mr JLB Matekoni goes to visit the orphan farm run by Mma Potokwane, for whom he has a regular gig fixing mechanical pumps and various other bits of infrastructure, and is somehow inveigled into taking on two of the orphans (a brother and sister) as foster children. How is he going to explain this to Mma Ramotswe? Finally, Mr JLB Matekoni's house-maid, concerned about her future employment prospects in the wake of her employer's engagement and sudden entry into parenthood, hatches a plan to have Mma Ramotswe arrested and imprisoned.

Mma Ramotswe's finely-honed detectival instincts mean she can sniff out a wrong'un at 100 yards, and she is soon pursuing an angle which has eluded previous investigators: Michael Curtin's erstwhile colleague Dr. Oswald Ranta, now a lecturer in economics at the local university. It doesn't take much leaning on Dr. Ranta for him to reveal the truth: he and Michael shared a woman, Clara, something which Ranta and (obviously) Clara were aware of but Michael was not, and when he found out he took it badly, ran off into the bush and fell into a ditch, breaking his neck. Panicking, Ranta arranged for the burial of the body and denied all knowledge of Michael's fate.

So the case is solved. But there is an extra factor: Clara was pregnant with Michael's child when he died and the boy is now ten years old. Mma Ramotswe, as well as delivering her findings to Mrs. Curtin, also arranges a meeting between her, Clara and her grandson. 

And so the wheel comes full circle, closure is achieved, et cetera et cetera. All a bit convenient, you might say, and, well, yes, probably. Tears Of The Giraffe is actually the second in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of which, erm, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first, but just as with The Ionian Mission it's perfectly possible to pick up a random entry from the series (which now numbers twenty-odd) and enjoy it without having to have read all (or indeed any) of its predecessors. The Patrick O'Brian novels have a bit of literary heft and density to them, but this one is as light as a feather, the transparently good and kind protagonists never being in any danger of having bad stuff happening to them. It's a little bit cutesy and cosy for my taste, to be honest, and underneath the author's evident love for the country and people of Botswana there's just a hint of a rancid whiff of hankering for a simpler world of harsh retributive justice and childhood discipline, something we "sophisticated" first-world types have talked ourselves out of with our moral relativism and nuance.

Maybe I'm taking it all too seriously - this is a bit of fairly inconsequential fun, Precious Ramotswe is an appealing central character and I certainly wouldn't rule out reading another one in future if it presents itself in a second-hand shop for a small amount of money. What I would suggest, though, to anyone after short, slyly humorous detective novels that also feature a central mystery of some interest, is to get acquainted with the work of Kinky Friedman.

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