Friday, October 10, 2014

Precious... but that's about all

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith


Mme Ramotswe is a female detective in Botswana, the only one there until Mr. Buthelezi arrived, claiming it as "man's" work. Mme Ramotswe isn't convinced and nor is her assistant, Mme Makutsi, who graduated top of her Secretarial College class. However, small towns don't have much call for private detectives, so when Mme Ramotswe gets a particularly delicate new case, the customer wants only Mme Ramotswe's help. That means Mme Makutsi needs to find other things to fill her days and increase her bank balance (which might also help her find a husband). Helping with the clerical work for the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the garage below their offices, doesn't earn her much, and so she establishes the Kalahari Typing School for Men. When another case comes to the "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" via the unhappy customer Mr. Buthelezi, things start getting complicated.

From this summary, one might think that this mystery novel such would be quite a long book. Especially since I didn't even mention Mme Ramotswe's fiancé, the garage owner reluctant to set a wedding date, or the two orphans she's adopted with him. However, this is a very slim volume, which is suspicious. With so much to cover, and this being the fourth book in the series, there seems a whole lot is missing here. Perhaps if I started with the first book I would have had more background. Still, most detective novels I've read seem to have enough background on the detective to make them complete on their own (no one I know ever read Agatha Christie in the order her books were written). Unfortunately, my first impression of this book was that I felt somewhat lost.

Of course, as the book progressed, I did get to understand these characters much better. McCall Smith's draws his central characters to work in a type of blurry harmony, as if they're all in this haze of a place and move through it in slow motion. If that is how McCall Smith sets a mood, he's been very successful. While these stories take place in Botswana, a foreign location to most of us, McCall Smith makes us feel it's the most natural place in the world. His settings are human and believable and the characters fit into them like a hand in an old glove. As we get both their thoughts and their actions, we get deeper into their psyches and more comfortable with them and their situations. This is probably McCall Smith's greatest achievement - he can really make the reader empathize with his cast of characters, which I think is essential to a character driven story.

This is primarily due to McCall Smith's writing style, which is very charming. He gives us a lovely feeling of what this African place is like, how the people move through it and how life is there in general. His descriptions of places are done via observations by the characters, which is far more effective than just straight-out listings of details. His dialogs work to help the reader understand the character's personalities and he gives them very clear and unique voices. Furthermore, he knows how to get the reader to feel part of his character's lives by setting up situations of interactions, which reveal more than the words on the page themselves. Despite the dream-like manner, it still feels realistic.

Unfortunately, where McCall Smith excels with his characters, he underestimates the need to give them something read-worthy to do, but not for lack of trying. This book has not one, but two mysteries to solve, and they completely unrelated. In addition, there is the dilemma of the #1 Detective Agency's new rival detective. These three things were pivotal to the story but only whitewashed into this book, making one wonder why they were even included. Into this mix, we have the garage's two apprentices and their antics, as well as Mme Makutsi's business venture. While the latter does factor in one of the cases, the former seems to be there just for color. It just felt that McCall Smith bit off more plot than he could chew, which got lost under about 200 pages of (an albeit nicely done) character study. That leaves two easily answered mysteries and tossing off the rival detective with several unattended loose ends, which made me say "huh?"

All this made me think that McCall Smith was making light of the day-to-day problems of the people. Almost as if he's saying that, nothing is complex in this world that uniting of a minimal amount of attention and adding a heavy dose of nature taking its course won't solve. Of course, maybe this really is life in Botswana, but I don't buy it. After all, human beings are complex creatures. So even the most idyllic of places have complications, mysteries and dilemmas that take at least some effort and thought to resolve, if not learn how to live with. If McCall Smith is showing his nostalgia and affection for his roots through rose-colored glasses, I'm afraid I don't care for that shade of pink.

On the positive side, this is a very pleasant way to escape for a few hours into another place and mind-set, which today is a true blessing. Its escapist fiction vaguely disguised as a mystery and the most complimentary word I can use for it is "precious," which is also our protagonist's first name. If you're a hard-core mystery lover, who needs cliffhangers, twisty plots and situations that are practically impossible to get out of, this isn't for you. However, if you want a fast reading, short feel-good book, this may be just the thing. Even so, I can't give it more than two stars. 



"The Kalahari Typing School for Men" by Alexander McCall Smith published by Polygon Books in 2002 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audio from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a greatly revised version of a review that I originally published on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.)

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