This is the first novel in the eponymous long-running series (22 books over 20+ years) by Alexander McCall Smith. It introduces us to Mma Precious Ramotswe, a canny and capable Botswanan woman who takes her inheritance from her father to start a detective agency in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone. Rather than a single mystery, the novel is structured more like short stories with overlapping characters, albeit progressing in time- each chapter is a new small mystery for Mma Ramotswe to solve.
This first installment gives us Mma Ramotswe’s backstory- a loving father, an impetuous and ill-fated first marriage- as well as the initial struggles to build a new business (lady detectives are a new thing for Gaborone, so business is not swift- at least not initially). We also get a very proper and slowly building romance between Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni, who operates an automotive shop down the road and both assists Mma Ramotswe with other vehicles when the need arises, as well as requests her services for a mystery chapter of his own.
Each mystery varies, and they feel very tied to their Botswanan location- one involves an international border crossing, possible because Gaborone abuts the South African border with Botswana; one involves a witch doctor and folk medicine; one features a crocodile as a villain. Mma Ramotswe’s approach to each mystery is slow and thoughtful, with her theory being that to understand the mysterfy she must first understand the people involved in it. This lends each chapter a cozy air- I want to say Ms. Marple in Botswana, but that feels like flattening Mma Ramotswe and Botswana when they are very much front and present.
I first read this years ago, and I think I was put off by the short story feel, as well as the fact that some of the early chapters aren’t really mysteries at all but rather Mma Ramotswe’s backstory. I didn’t feel that way on this read, and want to pick up the next installment to see how these characters really come into their own.
Counting this one as the ‘Cozy’ square for cbr14bingo.