Alexander McCall Smith Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.


(The entire section is 1126 words.)