Alexander McCall Smith

To leave her [Mma Precious Ramotswe] where she was at the end of the first novel would have been rather like getting up and leaving the room in the middle of a conversation—rather rude. -- Alexander McCall Smith

Indeed the effort involved [in reading Booker list] would have been justified by just one of them, The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. -- Gerald Kaufmann, chairman Booker Prize Jury, 1999

I enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, set in Africa with an engaging heroine who can give Miss Marple a run for her money -- Sheena Mackay, Booker Prize Jury, 1999

Set in Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith hit the big time with The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998), now a series of several novels.

Alexander McCall Smith was an established professor of law, an expert on ethics and a part time musician when, at the age of fifty, he wrote The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, the book that turned his life on its head. The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency became a word-of-mouth best-seller.

Mma Precious Ramotswe, a 'traditionally built' Botswanan woman, Botswana's first and finest female detective, spends as much of her time dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life as she does solving crime. Her cases have included absent husbands, imposter fathers, philandering partners, missing children and curious conmen - all resolved using common sense and underpinned with a strong sense of the importance of traditional African social values.

The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency has received two Booker Judge's Special Recommendations.

Alexander McCall Smith changed tack with The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), now a series of two novels. Unlike The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, this detective series is set in Edinburgh, not Botswana.

Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, knows when someone is guilty. She then engages in some amateur sleuthing to uncover the evidence, but she is no Miss Marple.

Alexander McCall Smith changes tack still further with 44 Scotland Street (2005), like the The Sunday Philosophy Club, 44 Scotland Street is set in Edinburgh. Now a series of three novels, also serialised in The Scotsman.

Pat, now on her second gap year, moves into a flat with Bruce, a poser, neighbour Dominica, an interesting widow, below Irene, with a precocious five-year old brat. Pat, works for Mathew in his art gallery, something of a loser, but a nice enough chap.

Some of our greatest novels were written as serialisations, the works of Charles Dickens for example. The tales of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were originally published in the Strand magazine.

44 Scotland Street was originally published as a daily serialisation in The Scotsman. An audiobook version read by Blythe Duff is available on CD or audio cassette.

Quirky, if not oddball, sums up 44 Scotland Street. Even the chapter headings are quirky, 'Stuff Happens', 'Gallery Matters', 'A Dissident Free Presbyterian Fatwa' .....

Espresso Tales is a vast improvement on 44 Scotland Street. 44 Scotland Street involved boorish Scottish characters, the sort you find in London pubs in their kilts boring everyone to death, equally boorish references to Scottish poets and painters, that no one outside of Scotland has heard of nor would wish to. By contrast, in Espresso Tales real characters emerge. It is a witty, cynical look at Edinburgh society and at times very funny.

The 44 Scotland Street series appeared to be wound up with the second novel Espresso Tales, therefore it was a surprise when a third novel Love Over Scotland appeared.

Other publications include The 2˝ Pillars of Wisdom, a trilogy in one volume.

Alexander McCall Smith has also published several academic texts.

Alexander McCall Smith (1948- ) was born in Zimbabwe, educated in Zimbabwe and Edinburgh, currently Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He lived for a while in Botswana.

He has held the posts of chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee (until 2002), vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and was a former member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. With his growing success as a writer these and other commitments could not be continued.

Alexander McCall Smith was a guest on the long-running BBC Radio 4 series Desert Island Discs in June 2005. He has also been featured on the BBC Radio 4 Open Book, profiled on BBC Four, and was the subject of an interview by Readers Read.

BBC Radio 4 has started to serialise The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The series is also being made into a TV series.

In 2004, Alexander McCall Smith was named the Booksellers' Association Author of the Year.

Alexander McCall Smith is not only a writer and academic, he is also an amateur musician. He plays the bassoon and is co-founder of The Really Terrible Orchestra.

Unusual for a modern writer, Alexander McCall Smith can actually write!

Read the books backwards, 44 Scotland Street, then The Sunday Philosophy Club, then The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Agatha Christie had a habit of regurgitating her characters, almost like the card game where you have interchangeable body parts. Almost like a genetic code Alexander McCall Smith leaves his fingerprints.

Reading The Sunday Philosophy Club after 44 Scotland Street, it becomes more interesting spotting these clues, than the plot or the characters.

Smart shoes, boring Scottish poets, unknown Scottish painters, a certain arrogant Edinburgh snobbishness, wine bars and food stores and and upmarket shops, architecture, music, philosophical viewpoint, W H Auden, Italian, playing a musical instrument (bassoon or saxophone), benefactor or co-founder of Really Terrible Orchestra .....

But ultimately it makes reading McCall Smith a drag after the first couple of books, as so predictable.

At least that was my initial thoughts had I left it there but after reading several novels in the No 1 Ladies' Detective series, my thoughts began to change ...

The novels in the No 1 Ladies' Detective series are timeless. Timeless in that nothing much happens, nothing much changes, reflecting the pace of life in Botswana. Traditional life, traditional values, values that are slowly being eroded away by the pace of modern life. With each succeeding novel in the series even less happens, such that there must come a time somewhere in the series that nothing happens at all other than Mma Precious Ramotswe and her secretary sitting in their office or under the shade of a tree outside drinking red bush tea and reflecting on life in Botswana.

Synchronicity: In the early hours of the morning, as I was listening to the late book on BBC Radio 4 and mulling over these thoughts, W H Auden appears as character.

Synchronicity: I had never come across red bush tea until I was offered a cup of it in my friend's office where we sit ruminating on the downside of modern life and the erosion of social values. It is revolting! Then I read The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and came across Mma Precious Ramotswe and her secretary sitting in their office drinking red bush tea, reflecting on life in Botswana. Some time later, I popped round to see my friend with a copy of In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. My reason for doing so is that he is the only person I know who drinks red bush tea, a foul tasting brew, the favourite tipple of Mma Precious Ramotswe. That night I didn't get to bed until the early hours of the morning. I turned on my radio to the BBC World Service, to find I had caught World Book Club. The featured writer was Alexander McCall Smith discussing The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. He was asked to read a passage from the book, and the passage he chose was Mma Precious Ramotswe drinking red bush tea.

Synchronicity: I was writing an e-mail to my lovely friend Iva and mentioned to her that I had bought for her as a present the third novel in the 44 Scotland Street series. I turned on the radio to catch the reading of a short story 'Brussels for Beginners' by Alexander McCall Smith at the Hay Literary Festival. I thought of Kafka, and there was the mention of absent Mr Kafka. My friend Iva is from Prague. [see BCID 5250289]

Books by Alexander McCall Smith have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress tracked through the Internet via a unique Book Crossing ID (BCID).

I popped in the local Red Cross charity shop and picked up a copy of The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Less than an hour later I met a lovely Nepalese girl and I was more than happy to give her the book as a present. [see BCID 5381291]

Literature ~ Sarah Webb
(c) Keith Parkins 2005-2008 -- March 2008 rev 10