Alexander McCall Smith
(Polygon, 1998); pbk £7.99
The Kailyard School is alive and well in contemporary Scottish fiction, but it has relocated to Botswana. Decidedly kicking against the hard-boiled masculine orthodoxies of recent Scottish crime fiction, Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series currently spans thirteen novels and has been adapted for a BBC/HBO television series by Richard Curtis and Anthony Minghella. It has much in common with Scotland’s most popular mode of fiction from just over a century earlier.
Like the representations of Scottish life found in Kailyard texts such as J. M. Barrie’s A Window in Thrums (1889) and Ian Maclaren’s Beside the Bonnie Brier-Bush (1894), the texts in McCall Smith’s series each tend to comprise a number of short-winded, entertaining vignettes of rural and small-town life. They similarly revolve around such material as comic misunderstandings, coming-of-age scenes, and family narratives, as well as the investigation narratives suggested by the title. Like their Scottish predecessors, the stories celebrate humility and politeness, and they explore traditional organic communities coming to terms of aspects of modernity. As with Kailyard fiction, however, there is also far more going on in McCall Smith’s series than popular perceptions of it would suggest, and both are unfairly dismissed as inane genteel pot-boilers. This image is admittedly not helped by the cartoon book covers of the Abacus editions and the self-consciously affected titles from the author’s other 44 Scotland Street series such as Espresso Tales (2005) and The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (2008), but the writing in his Botswana narratives should be judged on its own merits.
The opening chapter of The No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), named “The Daddy”, showcases both the more gentle populist dimension for which the series is renowned and the more nuanced and idiosyncratic literary qualities of McCall Smith’s engagement with the culture and customs of Botswana. It introduces the series’ charismatic female investigator Mma Ramotswe. Even the character’s name reveals much. Formally, she is Mme Mma Ramotswe: “This is the right thing for a person of stature, but which she never used of herself. So it was always Mma Ramotswe, rather than Precious Ramotswe”. This brief introduction inconspicuously reveals that she is a character of humility and suggests that identity is something to be claimed or created. Echoing the subtle linguistic experimentation that marks both Scottish literature and post-colonial African texts, the narrative voice shifts seamlessly between a third-person omniscient narrator and Mma Ramotswe’s first-person narration: “They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives”. The emphasis is notably on offering informal assistance, with resolving personal difficulties rather than any official kind of criminal investigation.
In this opening chapter, for example, she is called upon by a character called Happy Bapetsi. Someone claiming to be Happy’s estranged father has turned up and moved in with her, taking advantage of her hospitality. In a faintly comic scene that is very much reminiscent of Kailyard fiction, Mma Ramotswe uses folk wisdom to trick the imposter into revealing himself. Crucially, however, the vignette is also used to unpack the ambivalences of traditional communitarian values: “If you believed in the old Setswana morality, you couldn’t turn a relative away, and there was a lot to be said for that. But it did mean that charlatans and parasites had a very much easier time of it than they did elsewhere”.
If nothing else, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency presents a welcome alternative to the dour, middle-aged, hard-drinking divorced male cops that dominate contemporary Scottish crime fiction. It is also largely responsible for the widespread availability of loose-leaf redbush tea throughout the cafés of Edinburgh.