Wednesday, May 5, 2010


In The Double Comfort Safari Club, the 11th installment in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the suspense level is low. There are no murders, grisly or otherwise, and Mma Ramotswe's investigations have fairly predictable outcomes, though she sometimes engineers win-win situations that defy the laws of probability. But suspense is not the reason to read one of McCall Smith's detective stories. Mma Ramotswe herself is.

"Traditionally built" in moral values as well as physical appearance, Mma Ramotswe believes in honesty, fidelity, and hard work. At the same time, she affirms family, friendship, courtesy, and red bush tea. She's the kind of woman you'd like to have as a best friend or a mother - unless you're planning to misbehave. You know she'll see right through you.

In Double Comfort, nobody outwits Mma Ramotswe for long. An adulterer's secret is revealed. An angry aunt is foiled. An evil schemer gets her comeuppance. Villains in the No. 1 Ladies series are rarely murderers or rapists. They are ordinary people who are extraordinarily selfish, who are willing to hurt others in order to get their own way.

Heroes, by contrast, are kind.

Kindness, in fact, is what Double Comfort is all about. An American tourist, Mrs. Grant, is so impressed by the kindness of strangers that she decides to send a generous gift. Mma Felo, a philanthropist, is known for her kindness, even if she mentions it herself. Mma Ramotswe's husband and Mma Makutsi's fiancé are both kind men.

Kindness may not be evident on the surface. Mma Potokwane, for instance, does not look kind - indeed, she can look "severe, or strict, or even bossy" - but inside her "there was a big dam of kindness, as there is inside so many people, like the great dam to the south of Gaborone, ready to release its healing waters."

The kindest person of all is, of course, Mma Ramotswe. In a deliciously vengeful scene, Mma Ramotswe is even able to have sympathy for the terrible Violet Sephotho. This amazes her assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, until she remembers that "this woman, this traditionally built woman, this understanding, tolerant employer, this detective, was composed of kindness, just of kindness."

One Sunday Mma Ramotswe goes to the Anglican cathedral, letting her mind wander until the visiting priest begins to speak. McCall Smith generally avoids preaching; instead, his characters ruminate until they come up with bits of wisdom. But in this case he lets us listen in on the whole homily, which pretty much sums up this book's theme and Mma Ramotswe's character:
My brothers and sisters, ... we are seated here with those we know and those we do not know. But even those we do not know are not strangers. We are united with them in a community which is brought together by one thing, and that one thing is love....

There are people who say that what we are doing here has no meaning. That it is superstition, that it is wishful thinking. Wishful thinking? It is not that; it is not. Is it wishful thinking to say to yourself and to others that we must love one another? Is it wishful thinking to say that we must forgive others, so that love might grow within our hearts? Is it wishful thinking to imagine that it is only through an effort to love others that a hard and unhappy world may be transformed into a world of kindness and compassion? I do not think that it is.
The No. 1 Ladies books are the visual equivalent of comfort food - double comfort, even - but they are not sentimental or treacly. Mma Ramotswe knows that the world is hard and unhappy, and that loving others is often more effort than emotion. Still, instead of reacting with bitterness or cynicism, she is kind. And little by little the world is transformed, and that is why we love her.


  1. I haven't read any of this particular series of McCall Smith's, but I have read some of his Isabel Dalhousie mysteries and have been charmed by his loveable characters. I will have to read this book. Mma Ramtoswe's depth of kindness is something we should all strive for in ourselves.

  2. Hurray for Mma Ramotswe! I love the series, though I haven't read many of the latest entries. "The visual equivalent of comfort food" is exactly right: they're the perfect way to relax and remember that the world isn't ALL bad after all.

  3. I found the first two books in this series at a book sale last week, and picked them up at the recommendation of a good friend. I am almost finished reading book two, and wondering how soon I can get the rest of the books in the series. Unfortunately, I have just taken a vow of self-discipline when it comes to buying books, as I splurged quite seriously in the past few months. It is a dilemma, as these books are simply delicious.

  4. I too avoid buying books whenever possible - an ethically dubious position for someone who has spent decades in book publishing, no doubt! We are lucky to have an excellent public library close by, and that's where I feed my reading habit.