The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has sold more than 20 million copies in 45 languages. Probably because this is no ordinary crime-based bestseller. Alexander McCall Smith’s series focuses less on the complex detective plots, and instead gives a startling insight into life in a country that we know relatively little about, Botswana. It is a spotlight on not just a country, but a land, a culture, and a way of life. The feel and flow of the prose is itself a reflection of the way the country works; simple and relaxed, and yet grappling with the complex questions of life in Africa.
The real beauty of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is that it has taken the detective genre and infused it with something much deeper, much greater, and much more relevant. The books challenge hierarchies and shine a light on the evolving role of women and feminism in Africa. By writing about a ladies’ detective agency, Alexander McCall Smith is making a statement on the traditional roles women are expected to play in society.
The novels also show the struggle between the need to preserve the slow, rural way of life in Botswana against the necessity of modernization and change. They question the social structures of their society, the impact of the scourge of AIDS, and the ethics and morals of life in a modernizing world.
With auto-biographical applaud, Alexander McCall Smith has channeled his upbringing in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and later his work as a law professor in Botswana; we see from the novels how fresh the landscapes and culture are in his mind. He longs for that world, for the African way, inimitable anywhere else on the planet. There’s so much in these novels that show the subtleties and styles of Africa, those special ingredients that make it so unmistakably Africa. In the world of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, we can feel like we’re already there.