by Janice Law
The late Jean Kerr entitled one of her books of essays The Snake Has All the Lines, and, boy, was she right. I think anyone who writes fiction, and not just mystery writers, would agree that while evil is easy—or as easy as anything ever is in fiction—goodness is hard. Evil can be over the top, evil can be exciting, evil writes nicely.
This can be disconcerting. Of all the characters I’ve had to construct dialogue for, the one that wrote the easiest was the Abbé LeSage, an historical character important in the Affair of the Poisons at the court of Louis XIV.
The Abbé, a defrocked priest, was a child molester, a purveyor of poisons and a celebrant of Black Masses; in short, a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and yet he was waiting for me every morning when I sat down at the computer. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to sense Original Sin behind this rapport.
So it is both reassuring and philosophically pleasing to find a genuinely good character in fiction who is neither sentimental nor saccharine. Since I’ve long had such a character in mind without ever managing to fit her to a novel, I confess to being a bit envious of Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful Mma Precious Ramotswe of the Ladies Number One Detective Agency of Botswana.
Smith is clearly a genial man as well as a writer with a great fertility of imagination, populating not only the Gaborone of the Number One Detective Agency, but creating the denizens of 44 Scotland Street and the intellectual crowd in the Isabel Dalhousie novels. And he has other novel lines as well.
But though Bertie and Cyril, the dog, are wonderful in the 44 Scotland Street series, no one compares to Precious Ramotswe. Isabel Dalhousie edits a journal of ethical inquiry, but Mma Ramotswe lives to a genuinely high ethical standard and shows a marvelous sympathy and tolerance for her friends, her neighbors, her family, and her clients.
The series has a formula. In each novel, the agency handles two or three cases, sometimes quite serious, sometimes minor, interwoven with the ordinary strains of life and the troubles of the stock company, comprised of Mr. J. B. L. Matekonie, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and, at long last, the good husband of Mma Ramotswe; Grace Makutsi, her prickly and energetic assistant, recipient of 98% in the never to be forgotten secretarial exam; the two orphans Mma Ramotswe adopted, and the domineering matron of the orphan home with her endless mechanical troubles.
We know that we will hear encomiums to Mma Ramotswe’s father and to Botswana’s founding president, witness the drinking of many cups of bush tea, and be privy to memories of the tiny white van, which some of us (see reference to Original Sin above) were cheered to see go to the car chop.
But these are no more than to be expected in a long and successful series. Precious Ramotswe is interesting and appealing, because she takes the smaller pains and troubles of life seriously. Because she is courteous, because she is anxious to treat people with kindness and consideration, because she has real empathy with people without losing a strong sense of right and wrong. She sets the bar high, and we’re interested to see how she negotiates it.
Many of our favorite detectives flatter us with their weaknesses. They’re smart, all right, and enduring, but they have bad habits. They drink, they smoke, they mouth off inopportunely, and they have a habit of opening basement doors, literally and metaphorically, when they’d be better to call the police. We think we’d know better and that’s probably why, in general, we listen to the serpent.
Smith, however, has pulled off the neat trick of having an honest, kindly character, whose big vice is that extra pastry on the hotel terrace or another slice of fruit cake at the orphan’s home. Neither the tiny white van nor its replacement would survive a car chase, and she’s more apt to investigate a bad dentist than a serial killer. Even a series of mysterious hospital deaths turns out to be an innocent mistake.
So why do we enjoy her adventures? Because the plots are both humane and ingenious. Because Mma Ramotswe is not just concerned with who done it or why it was done, but on how to make things right as far as possible. She is concerned with preserving the dignity of others and with calling on their best, rather than their worst, impulses. This is goodness, and if she doesn’t have all the lines, she gives the snake a real run for its money.
So congratulations to Alexander McCall Smith on the publication of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, when fans of the series expect that Grace Makutsi will finally marry her furniture store owner, without, we hope, leaving the inimitable Ladies Number One Detective Agency of Botswana.