Let’s face it, I can be a snob. But I’m also not afraid of admitting when I’m wrong. And boy was I ever wrong about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. I would see piles of the books at bookstores and Costco and think, “If there are so many of them, they can’t be very good.” And not just so many, but so many on the bestseller list. To me, that’s a sure kiss of death.
But then I read one when I was a freelance book reviewer at the Detroit Free Press and I was almost immediately struck by the simple charm of the stories and the characters. I have since read nearly everything Smith (or should I call him McCall Smith, or is McCall a middle name. That question flummoxed me for a while, but I finally settled on putting his books on my shelves under S for Smith) has written. Admittedly, some are better than others, but all have the same thing going for them: A soul that shines a light on what is right with the world.
“The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe” is the 14th or 15th novel in the series (at this point, who really cares) and, despite that, the series remains strong. As always in these books, the “mystery” aspect of this novel takes a back seat to the ongoing story of Mma Ramotswe, founder of the agency, and her onetime secretary and now co-director, Mma Makutsi. That’s fine; one doesn’t read these books for the thrills of a tightly plotted whodunit. They read them to spend time with a group of wonderful characters. They can be petty, they can be on the wrong path, they can be confused and vain–who among us can’t. But not-so-far below the surface, they are good, moral people who believe in the general goodness of people and will always (well, almost always) do the right thing.
Some readers might sneer at these feel-good works and call them “cozies.” That’s a term given to mystery novels in which the crime (usually in a small, picturesque town) is solved by a nosy busybody or a cat or a woman who runs a knitting shop. Smith’s books are not cozies, because the mystery has never been the narrative’s driving force. Sure there are compelling plot lines such as when Mma Ramotswe took on a voodoo practitioner while investigating a missing child case, or the heartbreaking case when two middle aged people hired her to find out what happened to their grown son who had disappeared.
What one remembers, instead, is when Mma Makutsi fell in love and when Mma Ramotswe finally married Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and when he was coerced into accepting two foster children and didn’t have the nerve to tell his wife.
The real action in these novels takes place not during a car chase or an acrimonious interrogation, but during a friendly conversation over a cup of bush tea or a generous piece of cake at Mma Potokwane’s Orphan Farm.
Yes, these novels can feel twee: Why must Mma Ramotswe’s husband always be referred to, even by her, as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. And why does he never call his own wife by her first name? But that is generally a reflection of how I’m feeling at the time I’m reading and not the book itself.
You don’t have to start this series at the beginning, I didn’t. But if you do, you’ll want to go back and see what you missed. You will love spending time with these characters. If you’re an audio book person, these novels gain a great deal by Lisette Lecat’s performance of them.
Instead of trying to explain in my own words why these novels touch me so, I will use this quote from the end of “The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe.” Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B Matekoni are alone in their garden at sundown. There is just enough light to see how things are growing.
“There was also enough light, Mma Ramotswe reflected, to see that the world was not always a place of pain and loss, but a place where our simple human affairs–those matters that for all their pettiness still sometimes confounded us–were not insoluble, were not without the possibility of resolution.”
It’s important to be reminded of that every now and then.