Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Questions of identity

Alexander McCall Smith's 2014 novel The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, the 15th in his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, revolves around questions of identity.

The agency's only case this time around involves a woman known only as Mrs. who says she doesn't remember who she is or where she is from. With few clues to work with, Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi must try to discover who she is.

But identity questions don't only ask who someone is but also what someone is. Take Mma Makutsi, for instance. She was hired in the first novel in this series as a secretary, even though Mma Ramotswe, still having no cases, really didn't need a secretary. Over the years, the ever ambitious younger woman has won from her employer not more money -- the agency makes little money -- but a series of new job titles, each more impressive than the last. Now she is made a partner, or perhaps a co-director, although Mma Ramotswe struggles to make it clear she remains the senior director.

Yet Mma Makutsi still works at defining herself. In previous novels she has started a typing school for men, married a prosperous furniture store owner and become a mother. Now she decides to open her own restaurant, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, even though as co-director of a detective agency, wife and mother, she has little time to manage a restaurant. And who are those people she has hired for her new business? Soon the restaurant has an identity problem of its own: Is it really The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe or something else?

Then there is the problem with Charlie, the longtime apprentice of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the auto mechanic husband of Mma Ramotswe. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can no longer afford to pay the young man, who shows no promise of ever becoming anything more than an apprentice, so he lets him go. The compassionate Mma Ramotswe then hires him, even though she cannot afford to pay him either. He becomes an assistant detective or perhaps an auxiliary detective, or should it be an apprentice detective? The discussion of choosing the right title is priceless.

After Charlies bungles his first assignment, Mma Ramotswe decides they need a secretary more than they need another detective, especially since Mma Makutsi, now a co-director, no longer likes to do secretarial work. But should he be a full secretary? The prickly Mma Makutsi strongly objects to that title. So should he be a para-secretary, an assistant secretary, a clerk or what? Again the debate proves entertaining, especially as it reminds us how important job titles become in actual workplaces.

Mma Ramotswe once again displays her gift for solving problems. The novel's closing lines -- "She held her husband's hand. No further words were exchanged, or needed." -- reveal two people who know exactly who they are and what they are.

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