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The Kalahari Typing School for Men
Alexander McCall Smith
ISBN 0-676-97568-2
Alfred A Knopf

This, the fourth outing for McCall Smith in the Botswana Ladies Detective Agency. It is a sweet gem of a novel. Less a piece of detective fiction, it is more a microcosmic portrait of contemporary life in Gaborone, or more precisely, a ideal remembrance of what life used to be like in Gaborone. McCall Smith was raised in Zimbabwe and taught law of the University of Botswana before moving to Scotland.

His lead character Precious Ramotswe is a tradionaly built but very self-centred and happy woman who is fortunate enough to own her own home on Zebra Drive and run a small Detective agency at the back of her fiancé’s car repair business. At every turn we learn about what daily life is like in this African country that runs parallel to South Africa’s borders.

McCall Smith’s people are wonderful inventions of course and it is rewarding to read a novel full of all-black characters in their own country who are also complete masters of their own lives.
The plot is slight. A rival detective agency has started up ‘The Satisfaction Guaranteed Agency’ and there really is not room for two agencies in this small city. Her adopted kids are playing up at home, her fiancé hasn’t actually set a wedding date and her assistant, the very efficient Mma.Makutsi is in need of a husband.
That’s it. You don’t actually need more plot than that as the book is all about ritual, the daily moments of the lives if these people. Hope, aspirations, disappointments and just taking time to drink bush tea, there is no moment wasted, even though very little is happening. The apprentices are mildly naughty in the workshop, the clients aren’t murderers or in need of flashy lawyers, they are just people who made mistakes and want to put things right; or married women looking for errant husbands; something that keeps the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in rent year after year.

You get to know Mma. Ramotswe very well and her inner thoughts and feel the very heat that bears down on Botswana. You can also trace some influences from other writers who have made Africa the base for their fiction. James McClure whose South African Afrikaner detective and his Zulu sidekick Zondi made such entertaining reads twenty years ago with ‘The Steam Pig’ and 'Song Dog' and around a seventy years ago Herman Charles Bosman whose short stories about the Boers and Africans were so pithily well drawn and funny (or tragic) you can instantly recall their personalities and daily minutiae. McCall Smith has recreated Bosman’s world (without any of the racial insensitivities that were the unconscious part of his stories) that also criss-crossed the Kalahari. He has the same knack of telling a simple story that feels like a confidence shared and a vivid technique to bring these characters alive.

There just isn’t enough authentic fiction about Southern Africa and its peoples available in print in Canada. It’s not just a wonderful place to read about, but exciting and fresh to experience life that is outside the common experience and for most readers, Africa is far outside their radar.
Well told, often amusing ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ is worth seeking out as is 'The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency', the first of these stories.
The sheer delight of the language and the timelessness of the stories will quickly captivate you.

© Sam North May 18th 2003

The No1 Ladies Detective Agency Review

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In the Company of Cheerful Ladies Published Aug 2004

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