What distinguishes mysteries written by Alexander McCall Smith is his almost singular focus on morality. Although a number of other writers include ethics in the mysteries they concoct, McCall Smith typically reverses the focus in his works. His protagonists’ chief interests lie in examining the morality (or lack thereof) of human behavior contributing to the predicament; only then are the mysteries themselves explored and ultimately resolved. In interviews, he admits his penchant for writing mysteries featuring women with a heightened moral compass and an intuitive sense for detection, such as Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie. He has acknowledged his personal interest in moral issues. Certainly his background in jurisprudence and medical ethics has prepared him to write knowledgeably on the subject.
Often McCall Smith’s protagonists are less focused on solving mysteries than they are on resolving human dilemmas. That success in the latter often leads to a break in the former is indicative of how his characters operate. The maintenance of personal relationships is crucial to the establishment of community trust and openness. As Ramotswe observes of her line of work in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004), “Sometimes we are able to do something that helps somebody else. That is the important thing. That makes our job a good one.”
In the case of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series, McCall Smith’s depiction of the lands and villages skirting the Kalahari Desert creates a literary terrain that is at once curiously exotic and comfortably familiar. Although the foliage (Namaqualand daisies and Tsama melons) described by the author may be unfamiliar to many readers, the human dilemmas, foibles, and hardships are not. Cheating husbands, embezzling employees, and blemished beauty queens are universal in their apparent normalcy.
Although subsequent series centered in Edinburgh may seem less exotic than Gaborone, Botswana, McCall Smith’s depictions of human life still combine the ordinary with the extraordinary in ways that charm. In the Sunday Philosophy Club series, Isabel Dalhousie witnesses unusual circumstances in common environments, such as a body falling from an upper balcony at an opera house and a coffee shop admission by a stranger that he has acquired, in addition to a new heart, the emotional memories of the donor. The Scotland Street series features an ensemble of characters representing cross sections of Edinburgh society. The rooming house at 44 Scotland Street is the ultimate urban landscape in which to explore social values and behaviors as exemplified by its inhabitants, among them a domineering mother, a narcissistic young man, and a struggling writer.
Certain authors of mystery novels, such as Patricia Highsmith and Robert Bloch, turn to the social science of psychology to account for criminal acts. McCall Smith, like the chief protagonists he creates, relies on moral philosophy to examine the choices men and women purposefully make. Rather than explain away their behaviors, he holds his characters accountable for their actions.
The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency
In The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), which launched McCall Smith’s career as a best-selling author, Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s best and only female detective, hence the name of the agency. After receiving her deceased father’s estate (he bequeathed to her his cattle), Ramotswe sold most of the livestock and invested in a detective agency. The mysteries that require her attention are primarily domestic in nature: missing husbands, recalcitrant daughters, cheating spouses. An unconventional private eye, on occasion she abandons the advice of Clovis Andersen’s The Principles of Private Detection , which she used to start her agency. Rather than spy on suspects, she prefers to contact them and ask straight out...
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what they have done. Frequently, and perhaps in response to her own forthrightness, clients and suspects respond with the truth or reveal more than they intend. Ramotswe then offers them advice on what might be done to remedy situations. Not a typical female detective, she is the only one of her kind in Botswana and perhaps in the genre.
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Critics have lauded In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004) as McCall Smith’s best addition to the series. The sixth in the series, this novel focuses on the efforts of Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi to locate a missing financier. Their goal is complicated by other curious events that claim their attention: a stranger hiding under the bed who loses his trousers in flight, a pumpkin that appears overnight in the garden, a mysterious woman in a Cadillac who lures Charlie from his apprenticeship at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and the disappearance of Ramotswe’s beloved white van. Moral dilemmas abound and are less readily resolved. At what point does society allow a former convict to reenter its ranks? Can Ramotswe, content in her marriage to J. L. B. Matekoni, handle the reappearance of her former lover, jazz musician Note Mokoti, particularly when he tries to extort money from her? That the perseverant Gaborone detective succeeds in resolving these dilemmas is not surprising; following her own advice, she keeps the channels of communication—and her eyes—open.
The Sunday Philosophy Club
The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), the first in the series, introduces readers to Isabel Dalhousie, the philosopher sleuth who tackles moral quandaries and unsolved crimes with equal intelligence and composure. A resident of Merchiston, an area of Edinburgh that is also home to Alexander McCall Smith, the independently wealthy Dalhousie finds herself exploring other sections of the city in search of an explanation for the mysterious death of a young man following a symphony performance. Though his tumble from a balcony is deemed an accident by the police, Dalhousie intuits otherwise. The chief question posed by this novel is to what extent people should involve themselves in the lives of others, strangers and family members alike. It is the first of many ethical dilemmas that McCall Smith tackles in the series.
44 Scotland Street
The creation and design of 44 Scotland Street (2005) differ from those of McCall Smith’s previous mysteries. The novel was originally serialized in 110 installments in The Scotsman newspaper. Rather than rely on a sole protagonist, 44 Scotland Street is populated by a cast of interesting characters, no one more important than the others. Frequently characters are driven by their need for self-advancement: the mother who pushes her talented son to extremes in the hope of creating a prodigy; the surveyor who aims to join the country club elite; the son of a gallery owner who hopes to make his way in the world independently. The whodunit involves the disappearance of a work of art and the detective talents of author Ian Rankin, but as is the case with McCall Smith’s other series and characters, the more compelling mysteries are those surrounding the human heart.