Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is a refreshing change from the stereotypical books of the mystery genre. The novel discusses the relationships between Black and White people, traditional roles of women in Botswana, and corruption and violence that dominate in the country. The main character of the book, Mma Ramotswe, embodies all of these issues and is explicitly linked with the state itself. Through characterization, imagery, language, and plot Smith uses to create the image of Mma and her community, he presents the critical issues African people face today.
First, the novel reveals the discriminated role of women in Botswana. For instance, the case of Happy demonstrates that the society expects women to cater to men’s every whim. Throughout the novel, female characters are forced to deal with “masculine bad behavior (Smith Ch. 11),” cases of sexual and emotional abuse. Gender biases are reflected even in numerous negative reactions to Mma’s ambition to set up a detective agency. The main character sees the need for other women in Botswana to feel free and make themselves heard but realizes that there are too many obstacles for that. Through Mma’s inner dialogue, the cases she solves, and the attitudes of other people toward her, Smith demonstrates the way women are currently treated in Botswana.
Second, the author discusses barriers separating Black and White people. Mma’s father believes that, from the point of view of faith, White and Black men are equal. However, the attitude of Mma and her parent to the Whites is mostly negative. They view them as overseers with much money but little sense. However, some characters, such as Oben, claim that they have met White people who showed compassion and generosity (2). The imagery used by the characters while describing White men reveal race and class conflicts and racial stereotypes that exist in Botswana.
The book also examines the hidden truth of African life. In particular, in a dialogue between Mma and Mr Matekoni, the latter claims that witchcraft is an open secret known by everyone but talked about by none. Another problem the author focuses on is corruption. When Mma suspects a local official to be implicated in the witchcraft investigation, Mr Matekoni refuses to pursue the case being afraid of the man’s revenge. Through these episodes, Smith demonstrates that there is an unspoken fear of corruption and witchcraft that, though being taboo, are real and can influence people’s lives.
All the above-mentioned issues found their reflection in the worldview of Mma. For example, she believes that all men, [except for priests and headmasters (13)], cheat on women, and any involvement with them inevitably ends in tears (9). In fact, her assumptions about gender roles and the behavior of women and men blind her. The main character also pursues racial conflicts by her negative comments about White men. Moreover, Mma’s behavior is influenced by the hidden layers of the community life: she avoids cooperating with the police because of their corruptness (15) and deplores the methods used by the witch doctor (21). Generally, Smith links Mma Ramotswe with Botswana itself, using her behavior and inner dialogue to highlight the issues the country faces.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is an unconventional mystery about an eccentric main character. The author discusses the difficulties Botswana faces and suggests possible solutions to them. According to Smith, women need to be given a voice in society, work needs to be done to resolve racial tension, and corruption and open secrets need to be brought into the public before they can be fixed. All these things are made evident through the character of Mma Ramotswe, and her warmth, humanity, intelligence, and even her name suggest that these changes are possible.
- Smith, Alexander McCall. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Anchor, 2003. eBook.