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Alexander McCall Smith
March 13, 2005
The Nutty Professors
By DAWN DRZAL
PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS
By Alexander McCall Smith.
Illustrated by Iain McIntosh.
128 pp. Anchor. Paper, $9.95.
THE FINER POINTS OF SAUSAGE DOGS
By Alexander McCall Smith.
Illustrated by Iain McIntosh.
128 pp. Anchor. Paper, $9.95.
AT THE VILLA OF REDUCED
By Alexander McCall Smith.
Illustrated by Iain McIntosh.
126 pp. Anchor. Paper, $9.95.
In 1996 -- well before the ''No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'' series exploded from a 1,500-copy first printing in Edinburgh to shower the globe with four million copies in English alone -- Alexander McCall Smith self-published a collection of short stories called ''Portuguese Irregular Verbs.'' Featuring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a preposterously pompous German scholar, the book began as a private joke with a very distinguished real-life German professor, McCall Smith's friend Reinhard Dr. Dr. Dr. Zimmermann. (His official title: German academics line up all their doctorates.)
The good-natured Zimmermann bought half the 500 copies in the first printing, and the book soon attracted a minor cult following. When McCall Smith brought out a second collection, ''The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs,'' Zimmermann took almost half of that printing as well. The books circulated in what the author has described as a kind of samizdat until 2003, when his Edinburgh publisher, trading on McCall Smith's success with his African ladies, repackaged the volumes and reissued them, along with a new one, ''At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances.'' The three Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld ''entertainments,'' which promptly scaled the British best-seller lists, are now available in America, rather misleadingly labeled ''novellas.''
Professor von Igelfeld, the protagonist of all three books, is an extremely tall, punctilious, naïve and chronically aggrieved professor at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg, Germany. His great professional accomplishment is ''Portuguese Irregular Verbs,'' a magisterial volume of some 1,200 pages about which one reviewer observed: ''There is nothing more to be said on this subject. Nothing.'' Von Igelfeld, of course, feels that there is in fact a great deal more to be said, and he travels to conferences around the world saying it, occasionally in the company of his colleagues from the institute, Professor Dr. Dr. Florianus Prinzel and Professor Dr. Detlev Amadeus Unterholzer.
These collections of interconnected stories are gentle farces, somewhat similar in tone to E. F. Benson's Lucia books (which happen to be great favorites of McCall Smith). The world of the institute, like Lucia's English village of Riseholme, is a small and privileged one, and, as in those books, it is a place where much is made of nothing -- to great comic effect. The humor is heightened, of course, by the lofty formality with which the professors address one another, even as they're thinking the basest thoughts. McCall Smith keeps the stories from becoming claustrophobic by setting more of the action abroad than at the institute (we rarely see any of the characters at home) and by playing many variations on von Igelfeld's unshakable belief in German superiority.
To take the eight stories in ''Portuguese Irregular Verbs'' too seriously would be like popping balloons with a submachine gun. Indeed, the first three should be likened to juvenilia and passed over. The remaining five, although uneven, become abruptly better. The finest are the wonderfully funny ''Italian Matters,'' in which von Igelfeld practically starves himself trying to prove to a xenophobic Italian hotel owner that Germans do not ''polish off most of Europe's food,'' and the surprisingly touching title story, in which our hero discovers that Unterholzer has written an inscription to himself inside his copy of von Igelfeld's book.
''The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs'' -- made up of five longer, more cohesive stories -- is also a mixed bag. Von Igelfeld's encounter with a self-pitying, solitaire-obsessed pope in ''The Bones of Father Christmas'' displays all the subtlety of a bar joke, but his unforgettable ''confession'' to a strict Freudian priest in ''On the Couch'' atones for a multitude of sins.
Happily, ''At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances,'' in which von Igelfeld reaches his comic apotheosis, can be read independently of the other volumes. In the first of its two long stories, Unterholzer -- his eye, as ever, on taking possession of von Igelfeld's much more desirable office -- helps him fulfill his lifelong dream of going to Cambridge University. Von Igelfeld's swing vote as a visiting professor and his hilarious inability to decode British irony make him the perfect patsy for some unscrupulous dons. But McCall Smith saves the best for last. The title story, a comedic jewel in which von Igelfeld travels to Bogotá to collect an honor and becomes an unwilling ''guest'' at a revolution, attains a level of sublime nonsense reminiscent of Woody Allen's ''Bananas.''
Given McCall Smith's astounding level of productivity even before he took a leave of absence from his day job as a professor of medical law, it doesn't seem unreasonable to speculate that he may enter the P. G. Wodehouse sweepstakes and have more than 100 books to his credit. So long as he delivers on the promised fourth installment in the von Igelfeld series, I won't mind seeing Wodehouse overtaken.
Dawn Drzal's remembrance of M. F. K. Fisher, ''How to Cook a Mouse,'' appeared in The New York Times Magazine in December.
Fri., March 11, 2005 Adar2 1, 57653
By Liraz Axelrod
"Tears of the Giraffe" by Alexander McCall Smith, Anchor, $8.96 [translated into Hebrew by Ofra Avigad, Ivrit Publishing, 193 pages, NIS 74]
"Tears of the
Giraffe" is the second of six books in the successful "No. 1 Ladies Detective
Agency" series about Mma (Miss) Precious Ramotswe, a private investigator and
founder of the only ladies' detective agency in Botswana, Africa. She has an old
white pickup truck, an abiding affection for tea, a fiance who's also a
first-rate mechanic, and a worthy and distinguished secretary.
The first book in this series was published in 1998 and became an unexpected success. Alexander McCall Smith, a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, is an unusually prolific writer: He has published some 50 books, including works on Botswana criminal law and other juridical matters, children's books, stories from Africa and more. But his real commercial success came with the "Agency" series.
McCall Smith was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He moved to Scotland for his studies and has remained there ever since. When he returned to Africa for a visit, it was as a Western law professor coming to establish a law school in the University of Botswana. This part of his elaborate biography can be linked to all that is surprising, but also problematic, about his series. McCall, after all and in the context most relevant to us, is a white, Western, educated, middle-aged man, a university professor from Scotland, writing about a black woman whose life and experiences are derived from the infinite African expanses stretched out under the continent's enormous skies. And that is no small presumption. After all, how can McCall enter the mind of a black woman, particularly one who has never left the African soil?
Solving the mystery
In "Tears of the Giraffe," the author tells two stories. One is a kind of detective story, beginning with a mystery - the disappearance of a young, idealistic white man who once lived and worked in a kind of agricultural commune. Its inhabitants, locals and Westerners, were trying to develop methods of agriculture suited to the Kalahari Desert while also experimenting with communal life. The narrative closely follows the solution of the mystery. Mma Ramotswe goes to visit what is left of the farm - a handful of ramshackle buildings in the middle of nowhere, attesting to yet another instance of failed hope. She tracks down the people involved in the venture, fills in the missing pieces and solves the mystery.
At the same time, McCall's book also tells a story of Africa. Its winds and smells and sights are everywhere, padding the plot, filling the characters, dictating a relaxed rhythm and a mollified tone, and communicating a deep love for Africa and its people. Mma Ramotswe and her wise, kind-hearted mechanic fiance, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, know that there is no other place like Africa. Mr. Matekoni even believes that if the Son of God were to return today, he would definitely choose Africa ("Israel was far too dangerous these days").
Clearly, McCall loves Africa, and his love so suffuses the text that it immediately creates a nostalgia for a place we've never been and a desire to go there immediately. His Africa is a fairy-tale place, a land of giant expanses that the eye cannot grasp, of a white sky stretching across the horizon and a fierce, blazing sun, of spectacular sunsets and star-filled nights. In McCall's Africa, the good people live according to old Botswana values. They go to church on Sunday, take naps in the afternoon, know that it is important to buy your fiancee an engagement ring and that a man should not be present during childbirth, and are appalled by the rudeness of the young generation, who show no respect and look their elders straight in the eye when they talk. Perhaps this sting of nostalgia is not for an unknown place; maybe it is for a place we do know, for those good old innocent days when people called each other "Mr." and "Miss" without cynicism, out of respect.
McCall's Africa makes you long for a better, more innocent age. It has almost nothing in common with the Africa heard of in the news in recent years - the Africa that exists in the realm of Western associations. McCall has no raging violence, no abject poverty, no AIDS or other diseases. Botswana is a regular African state, and in McCall's hands it becomes a paradise, where good people live and order prevails and independent women have their place. This Africa is easy to love, because it resembles a place of the mind, a kind of elaborate metaphor for childhood.
Put cynically, this an Africa that's easy to digest. The Africa that we Westerners would like to see. Or rather, the Africa we are capable of seeing through our eyes and value system. McCall has invented for us a believable, rounded and charming female character living in an idyllic, almost mythic setting.
The book's language is direct, clear and descriptive, almost puerile, like the language of fantasy and children's stories. The Hebrew translation by Ofra Avigad is deft and articulate. "Tears of the Giraffe" is an easy book to read and a pleasant one to consume. It has a dreamlike air, and its mystery will keep readers alert but not tense. The landscapes are thrilling, the people kind, and Mma Ramotswe is the woman I would like to put in charge of all my problems. With her on the case, the end is sure to be happy.
Liraz Axelrod is an Internet content developer.
12 March 2005
Edinburgh still rocks
44 Scotland Street
Alexander McCall Smith
Polygon, 325pp, £14.99, ISBN 1904598161
Will Alexander McCall Smith’s readers remain loyal now that he’s not writing about Bots- wana, which he sees as an earthly paradise, but about Edinburgh, which even her most devoted citizens couldn’t claim for her, beautiful though she is. He’s as amazed by that skyline as they are, but no one is more aware than he that it’s the people that make the city what it is. And here they are, warts and all, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the misfits and the prosperous, as they have already seen themselves in the pages of the Scotsman where this first appeared as a daily serial. In the book, that comes to 110 chapters with headings like, ‘The Rucksack of Guilt’ and ‘God Looks Down on Belgium’.
We tread this teeming city through the eyes of Pat, who’s on her way to see Bruce Anderson at 44 Scotland Street, hoping he will become her landlord. He turns out to be an incompetent surveyor by day but a beautiful stud by night, reeking of clover-scented hair gel, vain as a peacock. Pat senses a love-hate relationship ahead but takes the room. Among other tenants, she meets Bertie, a precocious five-year-old boy whose mad mother forces him to speak Italian and practise As Time Goes By on his saxophone instead of mixing with other boys who wear school uniforms, play rugger and talk about trains, as Bertie yearns to do.
Pat would have fallen for Bruce if he’d stopped his macho posturing and instead told her of his recent humiliation when he was invited by his boss for a drink at his house before the South Edinburgh Conservative Ball and, discovering he has no underpants under his kilt, steals a pair and is seen doing so. But she’s happy working at the Something Special Gallery and thinks she might have found a Peploe, a distinguished Edinburgh painter. Ignoring a scribble on the back saying 3/6, she claims it might be worth £40,000. Matthew, her boss, knows nothing about art and has never earned a penny, relying on his father to support him, so he’s excited at the prospect. He spends his time drinking coffee in Big Lou’s café while she talks about the books she’s inherited. She tells him Proust’s past returned when he dipped his madeleine cake into his tea. Matthew takes a sip of his coffee and summons up his Proustian moment: his grandfather telling him never to trust anybody from Glasgow.
Edinburgh has its snobberies: golf clubs nursing their exclusivity, tea at Jenners, conversations about the ‘pros and cons of self-catering holidays in Tenerife’, Morningside ladies in furs and no knickers. But once Edinburgh had Burke and Hare, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and remains rich in eccentrics. One of them, Angus Lordie, a painter with three gold teeth and a dog with one, who winks when the name of Descartes is uttered, volunteers to examine the Peploe. It isn’t one, it’s a Vettriano worth, say, £100,000. And then suddenly it’s not. He’s overdone the paint-stripper. Pat, impressed by Matthew’s insouciance after this catastrophe, thinks she might love him next.
Of course McCall Smith’s new book is very different from those he wrote about Botswana. But it’s the same man with the same genuine interest in others, the same itch to write about them and do it in an extraordinarily readable way. He’d be the same whether he was in Botswana or Sandy Bells or Reykjavik.
Alexander McCall Smith: Warming breakfast serials
Alexander McCall Smith talks to Rhiannon Batten about his fictional return from Botswana to Edinburgh
Published : 18 March 2005
This week, Edinburgh's tour guides found themselves with another stretch of pavement to add to their literary itineraries. Scotland Street, a graceful run of Georgian buildings on the eastern edge of the New Town, is not only the most patriotic address in the city. It's also the setting for Alexander McCall Smith's latest novel, 44 Scotland Street (Polygon, £14.99), which centres on a group of archetypal residents in one of the New Town's stately tenements.
What sets 44 Scotland Street apart from McCall Smith's other works - his seven-million-selling series of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, his Professor Von Igelfeld novellas and even the new Edinburgh-based Sunday Philosophy Club series - is that the book was originally published in installments in The Scotsman newspaper. The first daily serialised novel ever in a British paper, 44 Scotland Street ran over 109 episodes between January and June last year; a second volume of the story finished last week.
The idea of a serialised novel came to McCall Smith when he bumped into Armistead Maupin in San Francisco a couple of years ago. "I was at a party given by the novelist Amy Tan," he says. "I went along and there were all these literary types, including Isabel Allende, who reads the Botswana books, and Lemony Snicket, who was playing the squashbox. Somebody said, 'As Armistead just said'... I turned around and it was Maupin.
"I'd read Tales of the City and said that I'd enjoyed them, etc." When he came back, he wrote an article for The Herald about "what a pity it was that newspapers didn't do serial novels any more". The response from the paper's main rival, The Scotsman, was - "You're on". When McCall Smith suggested that a chapter every week was quite a tall order, the reply was "no, not weekly, daily". The author was so flabbergasted that he agreed.
The serialised novel isn't a new phenomenon. By the mid-19th century, sequential works by Charles Dickens, Henry James and Thomas Hardy, among others, had become popular. McCall Smith says he ignored his predecessors when approaching 44 Scotland Street. "I rather suspect that authors in the past published complete chapters and therefore it made no difference," he shrugs. Instead, he had a vague idea that he would write about a group of people living in a single tenement stair. "But then I had to keep writing because newspapers use up stuff so quickly. You spend all this time writing and then, bang, it's gone."
Fortunately, as one of the lucky few who find little difficulty in knocking out 1000 nicely-turned words per hour ("I used to do 4000 words regularly every day but in August I went down to about 3000"), there was little danger of McCall Smith coming up against writer's block. "In my view, it's what I imagine it's like to walk along a tightrope, in the sense that you don't look down and you don't look back. You have to continue."
There were other challenges presented by a daily serial. First, that you can't go back and change what you have written: "Unless you resort to cheap tricks, such as suddenly saying that something was all a dream, à la Dallas, the die is cast." Then there was the matter of writing for a newspaper audience, and competing with other material on a page. "If you waffle away, you lose them."
Keeping readers' attention doesn't seem to have been too difficult for the professor of medical law, currently a third of the way through a three-year sabbatical from academic work. Many sent him feedback and one fan, Florence Christie ("in her eighties, a great spirit, a lifelong pacifist, a remarkable woman"), wrote encouragingly every few days.
"She's a very good judge on a number of issues. It's a great privilege for a writer to know that every morning the latest episode is being read by all sorts of people, all sharing the joke. Because it is really, it's one big joke. One of the characters in the novel [Bruce] is a profound narcissist. Lots of readers got very cross with him. I had a letter from one woman who said 'could you please do something nasty to Bruce... preferably involving a steamroller'."
When Bruce got away with something, the whole of establishment Edinburgh seemed to choke on its porridge. With a cast that runs from Tory bore Ramsey Dunbarton and free-thinking bohemian Domenica Macdonald (who, like McCall Smith, drives a custard-yellow Mercedes) to pushy mother Irene, who forces five-year-old Bertie to play the saxophone, speak Italian and sleep in a room painted pink to offset gender stereotypes, 44 Scotland Street is clearly both for and about the Edinburgh bourgeoisie.
The story and characters are in such tight synergy with The Scotsman's readership that it makes you wonder how much input the newspaper had. McCall Smith insists that it gave him no direction. But did he consider bringing Mma Ramotswe, of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, to Edinburgh? "She would be interested to see the Firth of Forth," he says, "and she'd be very polite about it, but she'd find it pretty cold."
In the end, McCall plumped for a social comedy which celebrates the eccentricities of what has been his home city ever since he arrived at university there, after a childhood in Southern Rhodesia. "It's not your average city," he says. "In a place like the New Town you get a lot of interesting characters. I suppose what I'm doing is just depicting those and having fun - and at the end of the day hoping that people will have had occasion to smile and to perhaps have the cares of the world eased for a little while, if that doesn't sound too pretentious."
Those who take the view that McCall Smith's books paint too sugary a picture of life aren't going to find a sudden change of direction. There is no hint of the "miserabalism" of Edinburgh-set novels like Trainspotting, for example. He once levelled that charge at fellow-writer Irvine Welsh. But, for a man who openly praises Blair and Brown for their stance on Africa, who counts the philanthropist and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates among his fans and who himself gives regularly to charity (recently pledging the equivalent of six months' local salary for a literary competition in Botswana), was McCall Smith uneasy writing about some of the world's more privileged citizens?
"I don't have a difficulty with that. The people in the book aren't the idle rich. It's certainly a different cast of characters and a different milieu from some of my other books, but none of them has callous attitudes. They have their fair measure of human compassion. I am writing about the bourgeoisie, I suppose, but then somebody's got to write about them."
It was also another chance to write about a country he is deeply attached to. Although never a member of the Scottish National Party (he's a long-term Liberal Democrat), in the late 1970s McCall Smith was involved in the cultural side of Scottish nationalism. "I think that there was a spell when Scottish culture was somewhat fragile," he says. "It's much more confident now, and with the advent of the Parliament there's less sense of Scottish culture being threatened. I think it would be a pity if certain things that are distinctive were to be lost; for example, the strong communitarian values, the poetry of the Scottish renaissance - if children in Scotland ceased to know who Robert Burns was.
"That's quite different from saying that one should just write about one's own backyard. I don't think that one need do and, indeed, I don't. But I'm delighted that I'm able to find an audience for things which are set here, which are Scottish, and I'm delighted that those appear to be exportable and to be read abroad."
He refers to the fact that US and Canadian publishers have bought both publication and audio rights to 44 Scotland Street. "Initially I thought it would be purely Scottish, but I've tried to avoid references that are entirely private or of no interest. I think that's the real key, giving the book a real setting but at the same time making it a story of universals."
Perhaps the proof will be finding out whether Bill Gates will engage as happily with goings-on in Edinburgh art galleries, coffee shops and Conservative Party balls as he has with the bush tea-drinking, "traditionally built" Mma Ramotswe in Botswana. If he needs a little help with the background, there are always those literary tours.
Biography: Alexander Mccall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1948. After the Christian Brothers College, Bulawayo, he studied law at the University of Edinburgh, where he has stayed as a legal academic. He became professor of medical law in 1991. In the 1980s, he helped set up the school of law at the University of Botswana, a stint which inspired his worldwide bestsellers about The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Since 1998, the six-novel series has sold more than seven million copies. This month, Polygon publishes 44 Scotland Street, a serial novel that first appeared in The Scotsman. McCall Smith has been vice-chairman of the UK Human Genetics Commission. Married to a GP, he has two teenage daughters.
April 24, 2005
'In the Company of Cheerful Ladies': The Weaker Sex
By JANET MALCOLM
IN THE COMPANY OF CHEERFUL LADIES
By Alexander McCall Smith.
233 pp. Pantheon Books. $19.95.
AMONG the many oddities of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is its unabashed sexism. McCall Smith treats the weaker sex -- men -- with pitying condescension. ''Boys, men, they're all the same,'' a woman Sunday school teacher says when she learns that a boy has been exposing himself to a girl in the next seat. ''They think that this thing is something special and they're all so proud of it. They do not know how ridiculous it is.'' Another female character dryly observes, in another context: ''We are all human. Men particularly.'' She is Precious Ramotswe (known as Mma Ramotswe), the regally fat, brilliantly sensible and preternaturally good and kind private detective around whom the series, set in the young republic of Botswana, revolves. ''The Miss Marple of Botswana,'' a book jacket quote says of her. But this is wrong. Mma Ramotswe resembles Christie's character as little as the books resemble Christie's mysteries. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books aren't really mysteries at all. There are no murders in them and little suspense. When asked about what the agency does, Mma Makutsi, Mma Ramotswe's assistant, replies (as a psychoanalyst might), ''Most of the time we are just helping people to find out things they already know.''
The Sunday school teacher admonishes the boy who exhibits his penis by creeping up behind him and hitting him over the head with a Bible. McCall Smith similarly uses the Bible to fix the reader's attention. The laconic, fast-paced stories of the Old Testament are the ur-texts for Mma Ramotswe's clean-edged cases, whose solutions have an air of mythic inevitability. In his classic study ''The Art of Biblical Narrative,'' Robert Alter identifies the ''type-scenes'' of the Hebrew Bible -- notably, the betrothal that takes place at a well -- and the ''No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'' series is ordered by a similar repertoire of set pieces.
One of the most charged of these occurs at a rural orphanage and involves a fruitcake. Mma Potokwane, the bossy head of the orphanage, serves the cake to people from whom she wishes to extract favors; no one who eats the cake can refuse her. In the fifth book of the series, ''The Full Cupboard of Life,'' McCall Smith spells out the reference that has obscurely hovered over the scene: ''Just as Eve had used an apple to trap Adam, so Mma Potokwane used fruitcake. Fruitcake, apples; it made no difference really. Oh foolish, weak men!''
But lest it appear that McCall Smith is himself a foolish and weak author, writing heavy-handed parables, he pushes the scene to an extreme that illustrates the quality that is perhaps the chief reason for the appeal of these books: his playfulness. In the sixth and latest book, ''In the Company of Cheerful Ladies,'' McCall Smith moves the cake scene to the waiting room of a famous Johannesburg surgeon to whom Mma Potokwane has brought -- with no appointment -- an orphan with a clubfoot. When the surgeon appears, Mma Potokwane whisks the primal fruitcake out of her bag and thrusts it into ''the astonished man's hands'' -- and he, of course, after accepting his second slice, can do nothing but helplessly agree to operate on the orphan. At the end of the tall tale, Mma Potokwane reports that ''he did not charge anything either. He said the fruitcake was payment enough.''
Good comedy requires villains -- they give the game its high stakes -- and McCall Smith provides his feminist comedy with an especially chilling one in the form of Note Mokoti, a sociopathic trumpet player, whom Mma Ramotswe as a very young woman makes the terrible mistake of marrying. This man is not weak and foolish; he is strong and evil. He regularly hits Mma Ramotswe, sometimes so hard that she has to go to the hospital for stitches. He abandons her after the death of their newborn baby and disappears from her life -- and from the series. But he remains a sinister background presence, the touchstone of the capacity men have for reducing women to primitive fear and helplessness. In the new book, he reappears and threatens to destroy Mma Ramotswe's successful career and happy second marriage.
Of course, Note is routed in the end (I will not say how), but his reappearance has deepened our sense of the seriousness of these light books and strengthened our bond with its heroine. She is the only daughter of Obed Ramotswe, a man of exquisite virtue -- there are deviants from the weak and foolish majority on the good as well as on the evil side -- from whom she inherits her own moral poise and also the means to set up her detective agency. McCall Smith does not render her realistically. Although he repeatedly cites her fatness (traditional build, he calls it) and the tiny white van she drives and the bush tea she drinks, we see her more at the majestic distance from which we view characters in the Bible rather than in intimate novelistic closeup. However, in contrast to the Bible's rather bloodthirsty feminist heroines (Judith and Jael, for example) Mma Ramotswe is an entirely benign instrument of justice. She exacts no revenge from the errant men (and the occasional errant woman) she catches out. Her impulse is always to spare the sinner and find some kindhearted way of exacting retribution.
''She was a good detective, and a good woman,'' McCall Smith writes of his heroine in the first book, and adds: ''A good woman in a good country.'' The goodness of Botswana is crucial to McCall Smith's enterprise, and the source of much of its comic inspiration. McCall Smith follows the satiric literary tradition in which a ''primitive'' culture is held up to show the laughable backwardness of Western society. But, as McCall Smith is aware, the goodness of Botswana, a former British protectorate that gained its independence in 1966, has a hybrid character. The country's unspoiled natural beauty and the unhurried, kindly ways of its people are only a part of what makes Botswana the paradise of Africa. After independence, Botswana rapidly became one of the most prosperous and progressive -- and Westernized -- countries in Africa. (The prosperity is a result largely of the discovery of diamonds.)
McCall Smith gamely takes on the task of distinguishing between the good and the bad things that have come to Botswana from the West. Among the unarguably good things, for example, are the antidepressants that rescue Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, a gifted automobile mechanic and the transcendently kind husband-to-be of Mma Ramotswe, from incapacitating clinical depression; and among the unarguably bad things is the fashion for thinness that is telling ladies of traditional build that a slice of Mma Potokwane's fruitcake has 700 calories. To illustrate the brilliant evenhandedness with which McCall Smith plays the two cultures against each other, here is a conversation between Mma Potokwane and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni that takes place in ''Tears of the Giraffe,'' the second book of the series. Mma Potokwane has been on the telephone with a grocer who took an irritatingly long time to agree to donate some cooking oil to the orphanage.
''Some people are slow to give,'' she observes, and continues, ''It is something to do with how their mothers brought them up. I have read all about this problem in a book. There is a doctor called Dr. Freud who is very famous and has written many books about such people.''
'' 'Is he in Johannesburg?' asked Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni.
'' 'I do not think so,' said Mma Potokwane. 'It is a book from London. But it is very interesting. He says that all boys are in love with their mother.'
'' 'That is natural,' said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. 'Of course boys love their mothers. Why should they not do so?'
''Mma Potokwane shrugged. 'I agree with you. I cannot see what is wrong with a boy loving his mother.'
'' 'Then why is Dr. Freud worried about this?' went on Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. '' 'Surely he should be worried if they did not love their mothers.'
''Mma Potokwane looked thoughtful. 'Yes. But he was still very worried about these boys and I think he tried to stop them.'
'' 'That is ridiculous,' said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. 'Surely he had better things to do with his time.' ''
The passage is a tour de force of double-edged irony. McCall Smith's gentle mockery falls equally on African innocence and Western knowingness. Mma Potokwane's ''I do not think so'' is worthy of Twain.
In the new book, Arcadia is showing signs of decline. In the opening scene, Mma Ramotswe sits in an outdoor cafe in the capital city of Gaborone and witnesses, in rapid succession, three instances of flagrant antisocial behavior. First she sees a woman who is parking her car scrape another car and drive away. Next she sees a woman steal a bangle from an outdoor peddler while his back is turned. And finally she herself is ripped off: as she runs out of the cafe to try to stop the jewelry thief, she is stopped by a waitress, who accuses her of trying to leave without paying her check and demands money as a bribe for not calling the police. Gaborone as Gomorrah.
After the incident of the scraped car, Mma Ramotswe reflects that ''it was not true that such a thing could not have happened in the old Botswana -- it could -- but it was undoubtedly true that this was much more likely to happen today.'' Her reverie continues: ''This was what happened when towns became bigger and people became strangers to one another; she knew, too, that this was a consequence of increasing prosperity, which, curiously enough, just seemed to bring out greed and selfishness.'' A few pages later, in a scene in a church, we are recalled to another threat to the African paradise. The minister speaks of ''this cruel sickness that stalks Africa'' -- that, in fact, stalks Botswana more cruelly than almost any other country: Botswana has one of the highest H.I.V. infection rates in the world, roughly 40 percent of the adult population.
I get this statistic not from McCall Smith's series but from an article by Helen Epstein in the February 2004 issue of Discover magazine. The ''cruel sickness'' is not an overt theme of the ''No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'' books. McCall Smith does not even give the scourge its name. On some subterranean level, however, his sexual comedy and the tragedy of AIDS intersect. The sexual activity by which the H.I.V. infection is spread is the activity by which the books themselves are driven. Sex is everywhere in them.
A large percentage of the clients of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency are women who want to know if their husbands are cheating on them. (They invariably are.) When Mma Ramotswe interviews one such client ''there flowed between them a brief current of understanding. All women in Botswana were the victims of the fecklessness of men. There were virtually no men these days who would marry a woman and settle down to look after her children; men like that seemed to be a thing of the past.'' The case takes a characteristically comic turn. After Mma Ramotswe personally entraps the husband and presents the client with the conclusive evidence of a photograph in which he is kissing the detective on her sofa, the client is beside herself. ''You fat tart! You think you're a detective! You're just man hungry, like all those bar girls!'' But the comedy only underscores the unfunniness of the priapism by which McCall Smith's Botswana is gripped.
McCall Smith does not connect the dots. He never talks explicitly about how ''the cruel sickness'' is transmitted. But one has only to look at the real Botswana (where McCall Smith has lived) to see what he must be gesturing toward. In a second article on the subject in The New York Times Magazine, Epstein writes chillingly about the promiscuity that is the agent of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. She attributes Botswana's especially high H.I.V. rate to a special sort of promiscuity: the concurrent long-term sexual relationships with more than one partner, largely male-orchestrated, that are a fixture of the country's life. She notes that a program of ''partner reduction'' or ''increased faithfulness'' in Uganda, where such relationships had also been commonplace, brought about a marked change in the H.I.V. infection rate; so far Botswana has not established such a program.
McCall Smith's major characters -- Mma Ramotswe, Obed Ramotswe, J. L. B. Matekoni, Mma Makutsi, Mma Potokwane -- are hardly in need of partner reduction. McCall Smith writes so compellingly of their goodness that we don't immediately notice their sexlessness. But there is a sort of chastity enveloping them that is in conspicuous contrast to the hypersexuality of the society at large. In the first book of the series, Mma Ramotswe articulates what is to become implicit. She has refused the first proposal of J. L. B. Matekoni, and worries about losing him as a good friend. ''Why did love -- and sex -- complicate life so much? It would be far simpler for us not to have to worry about them. Sex played no part in her life now and she found that a great relief. . . . How terrible to be a man, and to have sex on one's mind all the time, as men are supposed to do. She had read in one of her magazines that the average man thought about sex over 60 times a day!'' Mma Ramotswe later accepts the transcendently kind mechanic, and eventually marries him, but we don't get the feeling that sex has much to do with it. The sexual magnetism of the sociopathic trumpeter brought her nothing but suffering. Matekoni, clearly not a man who thinks about sex 60 times a day, if at all, brings her fatherly companionship. She is satisfied with it.
In a reprise of the cake scene, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane give the allegory of transgression yet another comedic tweak. As they sit in Mma Potokwane's office eating the magical confection, Mma Ramotswe asks her friend if she eats too much cake, and Mma Potokwane responds:
'' 'No, I do not. I do not eat too much cake.' She paused and looked wistfully at her now emptying plate. 'Sometimes I would like to eat too much cake. That is certainly true. Sometimes I am tempted.'
''Mma Ramotswe sighed. 'We are all tempted, Mma. We are all tempted when it comes to cake.'
'' 'That is true,' said Mma Potokwane sadly. 'There are many temptations in this life, but cake is probably one of the biggest of them.' ''
The ''No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'' series is a literary confection of such gossamer deliciousness that one feels it can only be good for one. Fortunately, since texts aren't cakes, there is no end to the pleasure that may be extracted from these six books.
Janet Malcolm's latest books are ''Reading Chekhov'' and ''The Crime of Sheila McGough.''