REVIEWING

The Double Comfort Safari Club

by Alexander McCall Smith


Reviewed by Janet Garber


Cold Comfort in a Hot Climate


alexander mccall smith

This is the 11th book in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which debuted in 1998. Set in Gaborone, Botswana, the series, written by Alexander McCall Smith, showcases the talents of a memorable cast of characters: the principal, self-styled detective, Mma Precious Ramotse, her sidekick, Grace Makutsi, and Ramotse’s boyfriend and eventual husband, the mechanic, J.L.B. Matekoni.

Botswana is a land largely unknown to Western readers whose only images derive certainly from the 1980 cult classic, The Gods Must be Crazy, in which a loin-clothed native from the Kalahari desert journeys to “the end of the earth,” hoping to give the gods back a gift he and the other peace-loving Bushmen definitely do not want: namely a Coke bottle which fell from the sky.

McCall, a Scotsman born in Zimbabwe, takes us into this “primitive,” but slowly evolving African world (dirt roads, wild animals, limited horizons. . . cell phones?), struggling to hold on to its proud culture (benevolent rulers, great gentleness, pride and a general politeness of the people) while shrugging off the vestiges of lingering tribal superstitions.

Since she’s a detective, Mma Ramotse is in contact with people of all classes and privy to all sorts of nasty doings. While we can’t help seeing the otherness of Botswana, the universality of the human condition is evident: spouses cheat on each other, people run various swindles, and there’s plenty of lying going around, as well as bribery, blackmail and domestic abuse.

Each book is a little gem. Mma Romotse is approached by people in need, she investigates 3-4 cases, and ties everything up neatly with a bow by the end of 200 pages. Her special skills are the ability to read people and discern their motives, knowing who to talk to in order to get at the truth, and confronting malefactors head on, while getting them to behave. She’s a fierce believer in comeuppance and her solutions are usually very satisfying to the soul. She’s a marvel and makes it all seem so simple. While she’s solving the cases, she’s drinking buckets of bush tea, helping out her friends at the local orphanage, sitting under trees to get out of the heat, and smoothing the feathers of her super uptight Assistant Detective, Mma Makutsi.

The beauty of the series is in the characters, the character-driven plots and the basic fact that Precious Ramotse is just so darned wise, good and empathetic! She’s irresistible and charming as all get-out. Smith gives us access to her personal history and Makutsi’s and Matekoni’s to see that they, too, experience problems we thought more common to first world inhabitants.

Now to this latest book, which I’ve been putting off discussing - I am sorry to report that I found it to be a bit thin, tired, and repetitive. Where is Smith’s usually effortless lyricism? Missing, I’m afraid. He repeats stock phrases about the Batswana (the people of Botswana), the traditional importance of cattle in their society and the loveliness and calm of life in the village. We hear about Mma Ramotse’s endless drinking of bush tea, eavesdrop on the rather slow thought processes of her husband and the rather quirky ones of her assistant. (Her shoes talk to her?) There is a little more character development; the relationship between the chief detective and her assistant is evolves in an interesting fashion, but overall, my feeling is that Smith, sadly, is just “phoning it in.”

Perhaps it is time to let Mma Makutsi take over, and let Mma Precious Ramotse retire and count her cattle. Smith, an amazingly prolific writer, a musician, and Emeritus Professor at the School of Law in Edinburgh, has several other series that he works on, such as The Sunday Philosophy series featuring Isabel Dalousie, and a whole raft of children’s books. In the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, he has created indelible characters, whom have been embodied perfectly in the BBC/HBO series (directed by Anthony Minghella) that premiered in 2009. Do better choices exist than the actresses Jill Scott to play the traditionally built Precious Ramotse or Anika Noni Rose, the unforgettable scene- stealer, Makutsi? The books have enough twists and turns to provide plot lines for several seasons. Talk to your shoes, Alexander, and see if they agree with me! And HBO, get cracking with the second season already! The fans are getting restless.

Janet Garber is a freelance writer living in New York City.



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