The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books seem to have been around forever, but I have never really felt tempted to try one. It didn’t help that whenever I noticed some on the library shelf, they tended to be the later books in the series and my personal preference is always to start at the beginning if possible…so when I had the chance, earlier this year, to read the first book in the series via NetGalley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally see what it was like.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana and features thirty-four-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. When her father dies, leaving his herd of cattle to Precious, she sells them and uses the money to buy herself a house and an office which becomes the headquarters of her very own detective agency. She hangs a sign above the door, employs a secretary, then sits back and waits for clients. They do come, eventually, and Mma Ramotswe finds herself with an intriguing selection of cases to investigate.

This is not a straightforward detective novel with one central mystery to be solved; instead, there are lots of separate little mysteries, with only a few pages devoted to some of them, although a few are longer. They are not particularly complex – I often managed to solve them myself, which is unusual for me – and deal mainly with cheating husbands, rebellious teenagers and cases of insurance fraud, for example, rather than more serious crimes. Mma Ramotswe takes a practical approach to her detective work, based around common sense and logic, and following the guidance of The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but more often than not she is successful and proves that those who tell her women can’t be detectives are most definitely wrong!

As well as the mysteries, there are also chapters relating earlier episodes in Mma Ramotswe’s life, descriptions of Botswana – its scenery, its wildlife and its people – and some insights into African culture. The novel is disjointed and messy and, apart from one slightly more involved case to which we return several times throughout the book, there is no overarching plot. And yet, somehow, it does work! I really enjoyed getting to know Mma Ramotswe and picking up a little bit of knowledge of a country I previously knew nothing about.

I haven’t been left wanting to rush out and buy all the other books in the series, but I would be happy to try another one at some point. Maybe those of you who are familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s work can tell me if it’s necessary to read this series in order or if you can just dip in and out. Are they all as episodic as this one? And are there any of his other books or series that you would recommend?

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24 thoughts on “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. Lark says:

    I’m like you…I’ve never really been tempted to try these books, although I’ve always been intrigued by the Botswana setting. I’m glad you ended up liking this one. I might actually try it someday myself. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      The Botswana setting was probably the best thing about this book, as the mysteries themselves weren’t very complex. I definitely think it was worth reading, though, and I’m glad I decided to give it a try.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I’ve read most of the series, more or less in order, but I think it’s one you can definitely dip in and out of. Things do move on and change with the characters and their lives, but the pace is pretty slow, and the author takes good care you will be updated on the necessary backstory from former books. When you’re in the mood, these can be really good comfort reads, so I hope you might enjoy a few more.

    • Helen says:

      That’s good to know, as I don’t think I really want to work through the whole series but would like to try at least one or two more. I can see how they could be perfect comfort reads.

      • Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

        I used to read almost everything McCall Smith put out, but he is so prolific I could not keep up! If your library has them you might try the next couple in the series for continuity, but I don’t think skipping a few would be too disturbing.

  3. FictionFan says:

    There is a sort of background progression but I don’ think it matters too much about reading them out of order. I enjoyed the first few but got bored after that – they do tend to be quite similar in both style and stories, I found. I’m kinda lukewarm about them overall…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I got the impression they would probably all be quite similar. I’m glad it doesn’t really matter about reading them in order as I wouldn’t want to commit to reading the whole series but would be happy to pick up one or two more.

  4. Karen K. says:

    I read several of them when they first came out, and enjoyed them very much. I liked the slice-of-life approach in Botswana, and I loved the sense of place. I did try reading the Dalhousie series and the 44 Scotland Street, which I didn’t care for as much. 44 Scotland had some really unpleasant characters that didn’t work for me.

    I think HBO did a TV adaptation of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and it was supposed to have been quite good.

    • Helen says:

      I liked the sense of place in this book too. His other series don’t sound as appealing to me, but maybe I’ll try one of the Dalhousie books at some point.

  5. Sandra says:

    I really enjoyed the tv series from these books and was disappointed that it wasn’t continued. (Due to the health of the lead actress as I recall but I may wrong.) Your description of the book echoes the style of the series.

    My limited experience of this writer is through his Sunday Philosophy Club series, of which I’ve read a couple. I find his writing style to be superficial and I can’t get past the sense that he simply churns books out on a conveyor belt. But that said, I do rather like that series! And eventually I’ll get around to reading all of it – luckily not that long a series 🙂 As for the detective agency – I think it unlikely that I’ll ever take a look at it, purely based on what I’ve experienced of McCall Smith’s writing style. (Of course, I may simply be jealous of a man who turned to writing having had a highly successful career already. His output, his discipline, his ideas, his story-telling … Need I go on!

    • Helen says:

      I can vaguely remember the TV series being shown, but I never watched it so I really had no idea what to expect from this book until I started to read. I didn’t mind his writing style, but I didn’t think it was anything special either. It was mainly the Botswana setting that I enjoyed in this book.

  6. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I’ve not been tempted to read any of this series – the idea just doesn’t appeal. But I have read and enjoyed some of his Isabel Dalhousie Sunday Philosophy Club series but haven’t read any for some time now – they seem to get a bit ‘samey’. I’ve read one of the 44 Scotland Street books, which I thought was an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. But I haven’t been tempted to try any more.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the books in his detective series seem as though they would be quite samey too. I’ll probably read another one (or maybe I should try Isabel Dalhousie instead), but I’m not really in any hurry to do so.

  7. Claudia says:

    Thanks for the reminder to check on the most recent out on my favorites of his series: the #1 Lady Detective, The Sunday Philosophy Club and Scotland St. I like the way Isabel ponders the complications of life, and the slow pace. McCall-Smith is extremely popular, for good reason.

    • Helen says:

      I did find a lot to like about this book and I can see why he’s such a popular author. If I decide to try one of his other series, I think it will probably be the Sunday Philosophy Club. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I can understand that. I didn’t think he would be my type either, so I was pleased that I ended up enjoying this book – although I’m not really in any hurry to read the whole series.

  8. Jo says:

    They are books for simple reading if that makes sense. These are the only ones of this author that I get along with. It’s just nice to drop in with them now and again. Escapism, not too taxing and they remind me of fables.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that makes sense. I don’t think I could read these books one after the other, but dropping in now and again for some escapism sounds like a good idea!

  9. aparatchick says:

    I’m quite a fan of the series, but I think it’s a mistake to market them as “mysteries.” That’s not really what they are. They’re really more about the characters discovering how to live an ethical life. Now that may not sound terribly exciting, but the characters – and there are many more after the first book – grow on you, and the author does a marvelous job with the sense of place. I think you hit the nail on the head by refering to the books as “comfort reads.”

    • Helen says:

      Yes, calling them mysteries is misleading – I found that the mystery element was secondary to the setting and the characters. The book wasn’t quite what I had expected, but I did enjoy it and will probably try another one.

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