If you’re like me, you like to read on vacation, and you’ve had the experience of bringing along for a fun trip some entirely inappropriate book--something relentlessly tragic and depressing and heavy. Completely the wrong mood. Through poor planning on my part, or maybe by my trying to bring along the thickest books possible, this routinely happens to me. (First world problems, I know!) But I’m pleased to report that it did not happen on my most recent vacation, because I brought along The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
This book is more or less a series of vignettes starring Mma. Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s foremost (and only) female detective. It’s not a traditional mystery novel; generally a problem is both introduced and solved in the same chapter, and then there are chapters like “Mma. Ramotswe Thinks About the Land While Driving Her Tiny White Van to Francistown,” which is exactly what it sounds like (don’t worry if that sounds a bit dull though; the chapter’s only three pages long). It’s a light, feel-good, often humorous, enjoyable little book, and with enough genuine warmth to keep it from feeling irredeemably shallow or stupid.
Mma. Ramotswe, as she’s called throughout the book (Mma. being a respectful term of address for women in Botswana, pronounced as it’s spelled) is a likeable protagonist; she’s warm-hearted and doesn’t put up with nonsense and I like that she’s a size 22, “traditionally built African lady” and proud of it. The writing is competent and while we don’t see a lot of Botswana’s culture, there’s a decent amount here. And it’s nice to read a book set in Africa that isn’t about war or atrocities. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about a white male author writing about a black African woman, but Smith pulls it off well: he clearly loves Botswana, and so does Mma. Ramotswe, and he resists the urge to put any white characters in the book at all (at least I think he does; race isn't much of an issue here).
So I very much enjoyed my time with this book; I didn’t really mind that it’s quite light, that the mysteries are often a bit over-the-top, that there isn’t much structure or much of a climax. I’m giving 3 stars, though, because it’s the kind of book that I’d only enjoy while on vacation, and now that I’m home I have no desire to read the sequel. Fortunately, the series seems to be a good mix of continuous and episodic--the next book moves on to the next chapter of Mma. Ramotswe’s life, but this one still presents a complete story that doesn’t demand readers consume the entire lengthy series to get some resolution.