Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Alexander McCall Smith seems to be one of those writers you either "get" or you don't. Unless you're like me, and you don't get him right away but fate, circumstance and/or a really pushy, bookish God keeps thrusting his books at you until, aha! You finally get him.

A couple of years ago, after reading lots of hype surrounding The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I was excited to pick it up at my local book discounter. At the time, I thought it was... okay. It didn't light my house afire, but it was all right. Then a friend loaned me Tears of the Giraffe... and it was also okay. (Aside: Yes, I've been reading this series out of order. I don't think that was the cause of my slow-on-the-uptake-ness, though.) Then I borrowed The Kalahari Typing School for Men from the library, back when I still harboured the illusion that I had what it takes to be a solid library patron. Also okay. And then I picked up Morality for Beautiful Girls dirt cheap at a yard sale.


Suddenly I got the appeal of these books. The dwelling on seemingly irrelevant details. The distinctively untitillating crimes under investigation. The slow unfolding of action. The quiet affection for the Botswanan landscape and people. The deceptively simple morality and personal approach to meting out justice. And the stolid, endearing character of the main character and owner and proprietor of the detective agency, Precious Ramotswe. I got it. I get it.

The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom: The Portuguese Irregular Verbs Trilogy
by Alexander McCall Smith (#12-14)
I was a little concerned that exploring a literary universe outside the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series would require the same time and energy -- time and energy I don't have, to be frank -- but luckily this wasn't the case. I felt almost immediately welcome inside the world of these books, which take place in the cloistered confines of a German linguistics institute.

The hero, the unnaturally tall and memorable Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, is almost diametrically opposed to Precious Ramotswe. Equal parts pompous and naive, von Igelfeld bumbles along in a self-important way that does my
Wodehouse-loving soul good. As the trilogy progresses, von Igelfeld's series of adventures become increasingly outlandish, in a way that reminds me of one of my favourite comic novels, Forrest Gump.

(I'll also mention that I adored these books, not just for their refreshing take on storytelling, but because they comprise not one but THREE novels to add to my sad tally for the year. I've never pretended to be a high-minded person who's above such things, so you won't be too shocked -- will you? -- to know that I did a search to make sure this trilogy actually had been published as separate books, and wasn't just an amusing abuse of the word "trilogy" for effect.)

Get out there and read some McCall Smith. He's like Febreze for your spirit, but without the noxious chemical headache afterward.


Alice said...

I loved his No. 1 Ladies Detectives Agency series, so bought 44 Scotland Street with full expectations of loving it. But sadly, it was not to be.

It was written as a serial for a Scottish paper, and it really shows, in that I felt the story got a bit lost a times. I also think he's far less adept at writing a 20 year old British female character. She didn't ring true to me. His optimism and slow paced style didn't feel at home in the UK to me.

But I'll check out this other trilogy - I'm intrigued.

Tamara said...

On a road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles, I listened to the No. 1 Ladies Detectives Agency and fell in love with the voice of Precious Ramotswe, sort of the way I fell in love with the Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. If you're looking for beach reading, I recommend her.

Paul said...

I don't know if you enjoy audio books, but I listened to a number of his books are enjoyed them all - partially because of the wonderfully talented actors that read them...hearing that African lilt is just captivating. I also listened to Cry, the Beloved Country, and - same thing - loved the voice almost as much as the book.

But if you enjoyed his books, I'd recommend Frangipani by Celestine Vaite. Kind of the same feeling, with small events adding up to a way larger whole. I believe this book should be a must-read for any mother...It is set in Tahiti, and the mother, a simple woman, works through her issues with her children's growing independence by sweeping the floor. I wish I'd read it while I was raising my reinforces the idea that if you love your children, and express that love without judgment and fear, they will grow into adults who appreciate others and can find their way into adulthood without rejecting their family or their background.

Anonymous said...

At my parents' behest, I read "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency", and quickly fell under its charms. I've read practically every paperback in that series so far, having enjoyed every one of them. He's a very good, fun writer -- nothing dynamic, but nice and warm.

spacepotatoes said...

I read No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency last summer and enjoyed it. I really liked the character of Precious, I liked the mellow feel of the book, and I enjoyed the humour. In spite of all that though, it didn't really grab me the way I thought it would. I didn't LOVE it. But I liked it enough to check out the rest of the series this summer.

Lady M said...

I also really enjoyed the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, especially the contast of slower pacing compared to my usual favorites. So I was excited to see another series, starting with The Sunday Philosophy Club. It wasn't nearly as good.

I have several categories of for authors/series.

1) Worth buying in hardback (really rare. Harry Potter is one of these.)
2) Worth buying in trade paperback (Ladies Detective Agency falls into this category)
3) Wait until it comes out in mass market paperback (most of my sci-fi)
4) See if the library has gets it (sequels to Sunday Philosophy Club)

Doppelganger - thanks for the recommendation on the Portuguese Verbs. Alice - thanks for warning me about 44 Scotland Street.

Deanna McFadden said...

I devoured the first four books of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (but I read them in order) and then stopped half-way through the fifth book. I had AMS brain freeze, I ate too much too quickly, and I haven't gone back just yet. However, he's got a book coming out for The Myths series this fall, which just might entice me back into the fold...

Anonymous said...

Alice, I loved 44 Scotland Street and its sequel, Espresso Tales, though I agree that McCall Smith's idiom is not always convincing in a young person's mouth (for example, a 20-something man calling his roommate a "slut", when he means she's messy). I've said to Doppelganger before (and not wholly tongue-in-cheek) that wee Bertie is one of the great tragic characters of modern literature.

But I think his characterisation of Edinburgh is spot-on (mind you, I'm a Glaswegian and appreciate anyone poking gentle fun at Edinburgh). It might be worth you giving the Sunday Philosophy Club series a go - it's also set in Edinburgh, but with fewer young characters.

Lady M said...

In case it might amuse you, I expanded on my earlier comment on "author categories" on my site:

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be so totally off topic but I thought you might get a kick out of this link
I'm totally a bed reader and thought that this was a great idea!