“Conversations” is a new series of books that seeks to engage with questions of faith through the medium of contemporary writing. In this first volume of the series John Inge, Bishop of Huntingdon, discusses the characters and stories of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. For those who have not yet encountered the benign world of Mma Precious Ramotswe of Botswana, she is a “cheerful woman of traditional build” who sets herself up as a lady sleuth, not to solve crimes but to “help people with the problems in their lives.” She is part agony aunt, part traditional matriarch, exemplifying the old Botswana virtues of service to others and generosity of spirit.
McCall Smith, who himself was born and raised in Zimbabwe, once saw a woman chasing a chicken around her yard in Botswana; in that moment the seed of the personality of Mma Ramotswe was sown, to be developed 15 years later into a popular series with its own small cult following. Critics of these charming tales contend that they are facile and simplistic, a white man's patronising fable of a black society. Their supporters contend that all imaginative writers take liberties – it was a white man who invented Othello, after all – and that the stories are simple in the same way as the parables in the Gospels; it takes artistry to be simple without being shallow.
The current Bishop of Botswana, Trevor Mwamba, who has written the foreword, thinks McCall Smith is an African at heart. The author himself believes his stories “are about good people leading good lives.” Flying in the face of post-modern western fiction, he has created an alternative society, gentler, less complicated, reflecting the genius loci of Botswana and dominated by his energetic and great-hearted heroine, Mma Ramotswe herself. John Inge provides parallels with Gospel passages and suggests, in a somewhat laboured fashion, that the stories develop the reader's moral imagination. Having read a few of them myself I can safely aver that they leave one with a spring in one's step – and a renewed belief that small acts of kindness by people of fundamental decency can make the world a better place. In the same way that reading pornography degrades the spirit, reading about goodness uplifts it.
But these secular parables do not preach. Through the predicaments encountered by the lady detective (who herself has suffered a brief, abusive marriage to a cold-hearted con-man) and by her wisdom and compassion in dealing with them, we rediscover the need for empathy and forgiveness in coping with the sorrows of life. “I see no point in keeping old arguments alive when it is so simple to lay them to rest”, muses Mma Ramotswe. Like Sir Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, and Queen Elizabeth II, her two role models, she shows in a practical way what it means to live a life of service rather than, as Inge remarks, making the goal of life “fulfilling one's personal potential.”
Mma Ramotswe understands the distinction between human frailty and evil. Most of the people she meets in her detective work belong to the former category, thus bringing out her tolerance, humour and kindliness; just occasionally she encounters the latter and accepts her powerlessness to change it. As the book shows, this matron of traditional build is godly; she attends Sunday service and often ponders the Bible, which gives her inner strength and resolve. She firmly states that “a life without hope of any kind would be no life”. Inge has provided an insightful introduction to a delightful series of stories. Banish that inner angst by reading them for yourself.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.
* This book in the Living Love series is currently not available on Amazon, but can be ordered through The Book Place.