Friday, November 29, 2013

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Elena gave us a set of DVDs based on this series of novels, and while we, quite typically, forgot that we had them because they ended up in the back of some dusty drawer -- and now we don't even have a working DVD player -- when I saw one of the novels on one of the used shelves at Flyleaf Books I snapped it up.

And I just read it. It's not like your typical mystery novel.  Instead of having one big mystery with a lot of sleuthing and red herrings and a good bit of plain old luck, there are a bunch of little mysteries which our heroine, one Mma Ramotswe.

One of the Russian Formalist critics from the 1920s, I forget if it was Viktor Shklovsky or Iurii Tynianov or even one of the others, had the clever idea that certain types of fiction, first and foremost quests like those of Huckleberry Finn or Gogol's Dead Souls or Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs, weren't really about their plots at all.  The plots were really just devices for letting the main characters travel around and see a variety of stuff in society high, low, and middle.

Often detective novels are just that, and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency falls right into that bucket.  The little mysteries Mma Ramotswe solves are of no consequence at all, though they do show us some of the foibles of a rising Africa, different types of shysters and criminals as well as the decent people they harm.  And it's much about letting us get to know our heroine as she herself figures out what this whole private eye business is about, having no experience in it whatsoever, and no predecessors to learn from.  And, to be sure, it's hard to not like her.  I like her.

One thing I was struck by is how comfortable and bourgie her lifestyle is there in Botswana.  She's not super rich, but she's perfectly comfortable, and she travels amongst a set of equally comfortable small businesspeople.  They drink a lot of tea and they all know each other.  It's hard not to be reminded of the Agatha Christie world, plopped down in Africa.

So I jumped over to Wikipedia and did a little sleuthing of my own. On the one hand, Botswana is pretty durned affluent.  This was written in 1998, but in 2013 nominal GDP in Botswana is around $9500 and adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) it's closer to $17,500, which by African standards is not shabby at all.  However, income distribution in Botswana is exceptionally uneven (although the only available data on that is stale -- from 1994), which is almost certainly because fully 62% of its exports are from "Not mounted diamonds," and a further 18% from nickel,  copper, and "gold, not monetary."  That ain't the kind of wealth that gets spread around real good.

But what the hell do I know?  I've never been there.  The author, Alexander McCall Smith, was born in Rhodesia and, though he spent a lot of his later life in Edinburgh, went back to the region to help found the University of Botswana in 1981.  So at least it's not some white guy just projecting an idealistic vision onto the country.

I'll read more of the novels, and if I ever go over there to visit, I'll report back.

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