Saturday, 24 April 2010

Book Review: The Double Comfort Safari Club

I'm firmly of the opinion that, if the British medical profession could just get their heads together and make Alexander McCall Smith's beautiful No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels available on prescription, we'd see the nation's blood pressure levels plunging within days. It's impossible to read one of McCall's novels - the eleventh has just been published in hardback - and not feel the stresses and strains of your everyday life just drain away as you become embroiled in the wonderful, trivial world of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's foremost (and only) lady detective and her coterie of colourful friends and colleaguies.

You may be familiar with the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency courtesy of the short-lived BBC1 TV series broadcast last year. It was a brave effort, well cast and beautifully filmed - but fans of the book series know that it's really impossible to capture the feel of the book series because it's impossible to recapture the flavour and pace of McCall's Smith's writing. The TV series made too many changes to the stories, introducing far too much action and incident and, as a consequence, losing the very thing which makes the books so special, because really, nothing happens in No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. Of course that's not quite right; things do happen but they're really most very sweet, innocent things. There's never any jeopardy, there's never any danger; the books are the stories of a couple of gusty African women investigating very mundane things and, at the end of it all, sitting down to a nice pot of redbush tea and watching the sun setting over the Botswana horizon.

Book eleven is 'The Double Comfort Safari Club' and for fans it's more of the same. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the books detail the comings and goings of the traditionally-built (ie fat) Precious Ramtoswe who sets up a detective agency - the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency - which currently operates out of an adjoining side room at the Tlok Weng Road Speedy Motors car repair garage in Gabarone in Botswana, owned by Precious' second husband Mr J.L.B Matekoni (he is always referred to by his full name, even by his wife). Precious, wise and calm, is aided and abetted by the nervy, excitable Grace Matekusi (who reminds everyone that she scored a record 97% in her final exams at the Bostwana Secretarial College) who sees herself as an 'assistant detective' whereas she's really just an efficient secretary. But together Precious and Grace investigate very low-key, understated little mysteries - marital infidelity, missing family members, helping customers find suitable husbands - and it's done with supreme good taste and a marked lack of excitement. The real beauty of the books lies in McCall Smith's wonderfully evocative descriptions of modern Botswana and its peaceful, unhurried, polite way of life. Without fuss or artifice the author beautifully creates images - pictures with words (and usually just a few well-chosen words) - that bring the parched and yet busy landscape of Botswana to life more vividly than any TV travelogue. And the stories reeally aren't about the mysteries, the investigations - they're about Precious and Grace, how they jog along together, how they react and interact with their friends and their families and how they bring their very unique perspective to bear on the little tribulations life throws at them. In 'The Double Comfort Safari Club' the first task at hand is deciding which teapot to use in the office and later there's much excitement when the two women buy sturdy new shoes for their excursion out of their normal stamping grounds as they seek out the lucky recipient of an inheritance. Elsewhere they try to evict the flighty girlfriend of a client who has been ousted from his own home and Grace has to cope with near-tragedy as her beloved fiance Phitu Radiphuti (owner of the 'Double Comfort' Furniture Store) suffers an injury at work. None of this really matters, none of life's little hardships really phase the two women abnd there's usually a little homily about life, love and friendship at the end of it all as life goes on as normal at the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

I suppose I'd call these warm, lovely little books guilty pleasures if I felt remotely guilty about reading them. They're obviously not the normal Stuff of this blog but I make no excuses for recommending them here. Without exception they're warm-hearted, comforting little books, often achingly hilarious and occasionally heart-breaking. Forget the well-intentioned Tv series and do yourselves a favour by tracking down these delightful, life affirming books. McCall Smith writes a new adventure every year and they can't come soon enough for this reader. Time spent in the company of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is time well-spent.

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