Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

As is typical of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built opens in such a leisurely fashion that it appears to be headed nowhere in particular. However, while setting the tone for what is to come, the book’s opening chapters also provide clues to the resolution of the novel’s central mystery that are so subtle that most readers are apt to overlook them. Indeed, leisurely pacing and subtlety are among the chief pleasures of reading McCall Smith’s fiction. Just as Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s only female detective, is always acutely alert to nuances in people’s behavior, so must readers of her casebooks pay attention to subtle details to savor the stories’ full richness.

The novel opens with Mma Ramotswe and her assistant, Mma Makutsi, enjoying their morning tea while discussing the decline of walking among people. An intelligent woman who tends to be more strongly opinionated than she is informed, Mma Makutsi confidently asserts that people no longer walk enough because everyone is growing lazier. Although Mma Ramotswe is fully aware of her assistant’s proclivity for broad and unsupported generalizations, she takes this suggestion to heart and decides she should do more walking herself. In the very next chapter, she leaves her beloved tiny white van at home and makes the long journey to her office on foot. Her walk is relatively uneventful, except for the painful blister it produces on one of her feet. Though seemingly insignificant, that little mishap later comes to seem portentous.

The novel’s pace quickens in the third chapter, when an important new client visits Mma Ramotswe’s office: “Mr. Football,” Leungo Molofololo, the rich owner of Botswana’s top football (soccer) team, the Kalahari Swoopers. As pleasantries are exchanged, Mma Ramotswe mentions seeing a newspaper picture of Mr. Molofololo making a generous donation to a nursing charity. He responds by praising the work nurses do, casually adding that if he had been a woman, which is he happy to say he is not, he would have been a nurse.

This remark leads to an awkward discussion of the differences between men and women that becomes more pointed as Mr. Molofololo explains that his reason for coming to see Mma Ramotswe has to do with his football team. Mma Ramotswe and her assistant know nothing about the game, in which they clearly have no interest. Taking their disinterest in football in good humor, Mr. Molofololo says, “It is because you ladies are womenit is not something that women understand.” Belatedly realizing the sexist tone of his remark, he quickly adds that there are many things men do not understand that women do. Momentarily stumped to think of an example, he says, “There are many things. Women’s business. Shoes maybe. That sort of thing.”

Despite the apparently condescending nature of Mr. Molofololo’s remarks about women, Mma Ramotswe thinks to herself that he is right because “men do not understand shoesnot completely, not in the deep way in which women understand them.” Although Mma Makutsi does not say so here, she no doubt would agree, as her own obsession with shoes is a major theme of the earlier novel Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006). In any case, the present story’s brief exchange about shoes provides the second subtle but portentous hint of what is to come.

The uncomfortable exchange between Mr. Molofololo and the women touches on one of the most pervasive themes throughout McCall Smith’s seriesthe often unfathomable gulf between men’s and women’s worldviews. Allusions to differences between the sexes appear on almost every page of his detective stories. However, while Mma Makutsi clearly distrusts men and regards women as superior, Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to pass judgment in such matters. To her, it is enough to know that men and women are different and to understand how to act on that knowledge. That ability, along with her strong desire to help people, is a key to her success as a private detective.

In many, perhaps most, of Mma Ramotswe’s cases, her insights into differences between male and female behavior and thinking lead her to solutions that others, particularly men, might not find. In The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002), she faced one of her most formidable challenges when a South African man opened a rival agency in Gaborone and aggressively billed himself as a professionally trained detective who could solve cases that only a man could handle. In the end, however, his hard-boiled approach failed dismally, while Mma Ramotswe solved the case on which they were both working independently. She succeeded where the man failed by drawing on her insights into female psychology. It is not some vaguely mystical “feminine intuition” that she possesses but rather the real-world wisdom she has garnered from growing up as a woman and closely observing the people around her.

In none of McCall Smith’s detective novels do gender differences play a greater role than in Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, in which three interlocking story lines run throughout the book. The first and most important concerns Mr. Molofololo’s case: the investigation of possible game-fixing by a member of his once-strong football team, which can no longer win games. Because Mma Ramotswe has never even seen a football game, it would be impossible for her to figure out why the team has been losing by watching it play. A manperhaps even her foster son, Pusomight be able to do so, but she cannot. As a woman, she brings different kinds of insights to the case. Instead of investigating how the players are playing, she investigates how they are living their lives off the field. However, she is also wise enough to seek advice on their playing where she can find it and enlists the aid of the very young Puso, who happens to be a...

(The entire section is 2415 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 14 (March 15, 2009): 5.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 10 (March 9, 2009): 29.