Friday, March 20, 2015

So wise, so gentle

... the African lady detective who was so smart, so wise, so gentle, and so patient that she made Nelson Mandela look bad.
Ian Sansom, The Bad Book Affair

When Alexander McCall Smith appeared in Clearwater, Fla., several years ago, he hinted he was thinking of introducing Clovis Andersen as a character in a future installment in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. Andersen's name has appeared in every book in the series, but never as an actual character. He is the American author of The Principles of Private Detection, the book Precious Ramotswe uses as her bible in the detective agency she started in Botswana with the money left to her by her father. Whenever she finds herself at a loss as to what to do, she consults this book.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, published in 2012, is the novel Smith had in mind when I heard him speak in Clearwater to an overflow crowd. (I was a part of the overflow, sitting on the library floor.) Andersen, traveling as he mourns the loss of his wife, happens to wind up in Botswana, where he makes a courtesy call on the little detective agency with the unusual name. He has never dreamed that anyone, especially someone as far away from Indiana as Botswana, would be taking his guide, which has never sold many copies, so seriously.

Soon Clovis Andersen joins Mma Ramotswe as she probes two cases that strike close to home. Mma Potokwane, who has managed  the orphan farm so ably for so many years, has been dismissed from her job by a member of her board whose interests seem to be something other than the welfare of orphan children.

Then Fanwell, one of her husband's young apprentices at Speedy Motors, moonlights as a mechanic for a former classmate, then gets arrested and charged with being part of a stolen-car gang. Mma Potokwane and Fanwell may not be paying clients, but rescuing them, with a little help from Clovis Andersen, becomes her focus in this novel, another winner for the series.

The above Ian Sansom quotation is actually meant as a putdown. Sansom's main character, Israel Armstrong, is a literary snob who remembers with displeasure some of the audio books he has been forced to listen to as he travels about Northern Ireland in the mobile library driven by Ted, whose literary tastes are very different from his own. These include a Harry Potter book, Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong and an unnamed installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Armstrong's description of Precious Ramotswe as being so smart, so wise, so gentle, so patient seems to be in the spirit of children who refer to one of their number as a goody-two-shoes. Many of us tend not to like those who seem morally superior to ourselves. We may prefer fictional detectives who drink too much, smoke too much, have sex with the wrong people and are too quick to use their fists. Their flaws make them seem more human.

Yet Mma Ramotswe strikes me as every bit as human as any of the tough guys. Hardly perfect, she drinks way too much tea and has allowed herself to become "traditionally built." Smith's books about her may not be great literature, but they are good literature that reminds us that kindness and caring can work wonders, even in the detective business.

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