Smith is master of small things
In the end, it is the characters that drive McCall Smith’s stories, and they are almost universally drawn with convincing realism.
THE LIMPOPO ACADEMY OF PRIVATE DETECTION
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, $24.95;
In Alexander McCall Smith’s novels, it’s the little things. No one gets murdered or kidnapped. There aren’t any high speed chases. Still, McCall Smith manages to inject plenty of drama into The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection. The central question of the story is what will happen to Silvia Potokwane. The head of the orphanage was relieved of her post after disagreeing with a wealthy donor over the issue of communal dining rooms for the children. Naturally, detective Precious Ramotswe and her associate Grace Makutsi are determined to have her reinstated.
Help comes from an unexpected quarter. Clovis Anderson, author of The Principles of Private Detection is in town and decides to visit Botswana and the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
The ladies note that “Clovis Anderson spoke in short, pithy aphorisms — just like his book. It was, they thought, a great gift.” McCall Smith makes gentle fun of the white outsider, describing his safari outfit in less than flattering terms.
“He was dressed in rather baggy khaki trousers with an olive-green shirt on to which far too many pockets had been stitched — the sort of outfit that people thought was standard dress for Botswana but was really only worn by visitors.”
But, despite his protests that he is not the great detective they think he is, Anderson aids the investigation in the same way Mma Ramotswe herself tends to proceed, by asking questions of those who know.
In the end, it is the characters that drive McCall Smith’s stories, and they are almost universally drawn with convincing realism. The one place where he always falls short is the hardest: children. Mma Ramotswe has two adopted orphans, one confined to a wheelchair.
Motholeli appears once in the novel, complaining of bullying by a classmate. Otherwise, the children remain in the background, something real kids never do. As usual, however, McCall Smith provides a charming and insightful story, not by putting his characters through situations of peril and high drama, but by presenting them with ethical quandaries that anyone might face.