Humor suffuses the charming little novels of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but I have never laughed so much as I did when reading the 15th entry in the series, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe.
Here, for example, is a conversation between Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her friend Mma Potokwane.
“Ah, Mma Ramotswe,” she said. “Do you know whether this sauce is as hot as the jar claims? The label has a picture of a man with fire coming out of his mouth. Look.”
The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #15) by Alexander McCall Smith @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
She handed her friend the jar for scrutiny. “I believe this is very hot,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But the picture is an exaggeration, I think. I do not think it will set you on fire.” For a moment she pictured Mma Potokwane with flames coming out of her mouth. She imagined herself reaching for a fire extinguisher and covering her friend in white foam, or pushing her down to the ground and covering her head with a fire blanket. It would be an undignified end to a meal.
The humor of Alexander McCall Smith is gentle and forgiving, never mean. Underlying the meandering dialogue that exposes the naivete and stubborn ignorance of Smith’s characters is a love for the culture of Botswana and its people, a wistful yearning for the simpler life he portrays. It’s all a fantasy, of course; Botswana has its ugliness and its challenges despite the charmed history that has isolated the country from the greatest excesses of ill-intentioned governments. But the people of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Series embody the African ideal of homegrown wisdom, tender manners, and a love for the land.
Mma Precious Ramotswe has named Mma Grace Makutsi as a partner, inflating the younger woman’s already outsized ego to gargantuan proportions. Now married to the wealthy owner of a furniture store and many cattle, Mma Makutsi has determined to establish a restaurant in the time she can spare from her duties as co-director and mother of her infant son. This leaves little time for Mma Makutsi to lend a hand on the mysterious new case that surfaces when a prosperous Indian shopowner requests help with an amnesiac woman who has wandered into his life. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotsewe’s ever-loving husband, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, is facing a decline in his auto-repair business and must lay off his long-serving apprentice, Charlie. In other words, it’s a typical time in the life of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The three strands of the plot weave together artfully and amusingly in unpredictable ways, with complications galore: unbeknownst to Mma Makutsi, her bete noir, Violet Sephotho, has become the restaurant critic of the local newspaper.
The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe is more comedy of manners than detective fiction. I loved it from beginning to end.
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