Pros: Happy, happy, just-so stories
Cons: Too sweet to reflect anything remotely like real life
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency presents a number of little vignettes of the early cases taken on by Mma Ramotswe, Botswana's first female detective. Mma Ramotswe has no formal training as a detective and she has no prior experience in the field. Fortunately for her, author Alexander McCall Smith arranges circumstances such that she gets lots of clients, and they all come to her with cases that present no difficulties. She makes enough money to support herself and is able to retain her naturally optimistic outlook. In fact, life in Botswana seems a little too good to be believed. Keep in mind that Smith is not an African writing about real life in Africa, but a white resident of the UK writing stories set in Botswana.
There's very little weight to Smith's writing. It's easy to read, engaging enough for beach reading but ultimately it's a little too just-so for my taste. Overall, I would call this very safe material; the kind you could give to young adult readers without having to worry about what they might find in the book. There's nothing remotely controversial or offensive here. The book is full of mild rectitude and an easy morality that everyone can endorse (e.g. violence and exploitation are bad, filial loyalty and courtesy are good).
Each chapter of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency could be a stand-alone short story. Mma Ramotswe's cases begin and end in tidy little packets with just enough extra room for her to exude her patriotic love of Botswana and Africa, her self-accepting attitude towards "traditionally built" African women, a feminist but deferential self-reliance, and a few touches of neighborly generosity and general good citizenship. All the moral bases are covered adequately.
Unfortunately, when it comes to literary merit, the book falls a bit flat, to say the least. For one thing, there's no character growth or development. Mma Ramotswe never faces any real challenges or moral quandaries. She has no personal problems of her own to resolve. True, her father has died, but children burying parents is the natural order of things, and it doesn't make a character come alive on the page. Or at least this one doesn't. Even as a rookie detective she never makes any mistakes and never faces any but the most natural dangers (snakes) in the course of her investigations. All her cases resolve themselves prettily and always for the best. Even clients informed of a spouse's demise take the news calmly. And bad things in general have the good courtesy not to happen. I'd say the book was like a fairy tale except that even in fairy tales there's usually some component of suffering or struggle. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency on the other hand is all simple-as-pie resolution.
Even the pleasure of solving Mma Ramotswe's cases for myself wasn't much of a reward. Several of the solutions are so simple that even a young reader would see them coming from pages away. It actually wouldn't surprise me to learn that this book was written for young adult readership. The language is so straightforward that a young teenager could read it easily. But as far as I know, the book is marketed to an adult audience.
The stories in this book kept me minimally engaged while I was reading it, but I won't be looking for the next installment. It's not a badly written book; it's just too simple to retain any hold on my imagination now that I've finished reading it. Yes, it's all very heart-warming, life-affirming and principle-upholding. However, I'm not the sort of reader who's in the market for that sort of pabulum. In the end, Mma Ramotswe is just not real enough, doesn't struggle, sweat or suffer enough for me to care about her one way or the other. She's a tepid fictional character that I'll have forgotten all about by this time next year. Your mileage may vary, but this book doesn't get my endorsement.