One of the pleasures of reading deeply into a series is the sense of stories arising naturally from the personalities of the characters as the author has shown and developed them over the course of many books. The banter between Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin is freighted with but not weighed down by the oceans they have crossed together, the scrapes they have helped each other out of, and the times they have nearly come to blows. Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax have their differences, and their different ways of witching, but neither is complete without the other. The interlocking stories that take place over the course of The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the fourteenth book in Alexander McCall Smith’s series about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, show the established characters being very much themselves. One of them has a great change in her life over the course of the book, but she is true to herself in trying to limit how much that change will shape her life; I am looking forward to the next books in the series (the fifteenth and sixteenth have already been published) to find out whether she does.
At the beginning of the series, Mma Precious Ramotswe, uses much of the legacy left to her by her father, that great man, the late Obed Ramotswe, to set up the first detective agency in Botswana not only run by ladies, but also dedicated to solving ladies’ problems. Not that men are excluded as clients, far from it, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency specializes in the problems particular to women: prospective husbands who may not be as unencumbered as they claim, husbands who have run away, husbands who won’t run away, and so forth. Their cases are by no means limited to marital questions, though like any private detective agency matters of the heart are their bread and butter. There are swindles, inheritance matters, business partnerships gone wrong, and even the occasional crime. In contrast to many other detective series, there are no murders. Very rarely, a known character will become late, but by and large the people who were late are that way already when their stories are introduced.
The first case that forms a part of The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon concerns such a person,
“… a man who had been a client of my firm for some time—a farmer called Rra Molapo” [said Mma Sheba, a lawyer].
“I know that family,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Or rather, I know of them. Was his father not one of Seretse Khama [the first president of independent Botswana]’s ministers?”
Mma Sheba nodded. “Yes, he was in the Government then. The Khamas and the Molapos were good friends, but I think the old man—that’s the father of my client—became a bit bored with politics and so he bought a farm down on the other side of the Gaborone Dam. It was quite a good farm, and of course land was cheaper in those days. He was a skilled farmer, and the land was in good order when my client, that’s Edgar Malopo, took over. The old man died and Rra Edgar took on the running of the farm. He did quite well: he won prizes for his Brahman bulls, and I think they even used some of them for breeding on the other side of the border. He made a fair amount of money out of cattle.”
Mma Ramotswe thought of her own father, Obed Ramotswe … Whenever anybody mentioned cattle, memories of him came back to her, and she was at his side again, at the cattle post, admiring the herd that he had built up through being able to judge them so well. She heard their lowing, and smelled the sweet smell that always hung in the air above them—the smell of forage and dust, the smell of their hides when wet, the very smell of her country. (p. 23)
Rra Edgar has left behind a complicated situation. He and his wife had no children. His closest relative is a sister, who also lives on the farm. Rra Edgar’s will leaves the farm to a nephew, the son of another brother who became late in a car accident in Swaziland. The nephew has been fetched from there, but the lawyer, Mma Sheba, does not think that he is who he professes to be. She asks Mma Ramotswe to show that he is not.
The second case, the one that gives the book its name, comes about less directly, out of the web of daily interactions that form most of Botswanan life as depicted by McCall Smith. The other detective in the agency, Mma Grace Makutsi, smart but touchy and sometimes tactless counterpart to Mma Ramotswe, is pregnant (having married two books previous) at the beginning and gives birth somewhat earlier than expected. Mma Ramotswe has been out buying a present for the newborn, and she is approached by the owner of a new business, the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. Mma Ramotswe’s traditional figure, squeezed in and out of her tiny white van, is known enough that she is sometimes recognized as a detective. The salon is a new business; the owner has worked hard enough in a market stand to be able to almost afford a storefront in a real building as her premises. Her problem is an unseen enemy: someone is spreading rumors, has sent a bad omen in the post, and later even prints up flyers warning people to stay away from the salon. Can Mma Ramotswe help unmask the culprit before the new business founders?
At first, Mma Ramotswe advises the owner to ignore the rumors and the sign of bad luck that was sent to her. For the first, only foolish people believe rumors; and on the second, that is the kind of superstition that is out of place in modern Botswana. But the toll on the business continues, and in due course Mma Ramotswe asks the salon owner about enemies she might have.
Mma Ramotswe was doubtful. “Those little arguments between neighbours are usuall not enough to make somebody do something like this. Can you not think of somebody who has a really good reason to dislike you enough to want to harm you?”
Mma Soleti looked up at the ceiling. “Maybe,” she said, rather distantly.
Mma Ramotswe waited.
“There is that woman,” she said eventually.
“Which woman?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Soleti assumed an expression of disgust. “The one who says that I stole her husband.”
“Ah,” said Mma Ramotswe. “And where did she get that idea from, Mma?”
“It is what happened,” said Mma Soleti. “But he was ready to be stolen, Mma.” (p. 146)
That conversation is about halfway through the book, which gives an indication that, first, McCall Smith tells the stories at a deliberate, not to say leisurely, pace; and second, that the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency tales are only incidentally mysteries. They are stories of the human comedy, full of foibles, but also full of grace and love. Sometimes there is crime; sometimes there are shameful acts; more often, there are misunderstandings or the petty rivalries that every society is host to.
Much of the pleasure of the series arises from the continuing characters, not just Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, but their respective husbands, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Speedy Motors and Phuti Rhadiphuti, owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Store. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who is never referred to in the narration with anything less than his full name, has two incorrigible apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell. Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni also adopt two children, Puso and Motholeli, from the orphanage run by the formidable Mma Potokwane. She nearly always has cake when Mma Ramotswe comes to visit, nearly always has something for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to repair when he comes to visit, and in The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon turns out to have crucial information to help unravel one of the cases.
Not every case that comes to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency gets resolved. Mma Ramotswe has seen enough of life to know that not everything works out. But this time, both questions are answered, although as if to underscore the series’ separation from the genre, the confrontation between detective and malefactor does not unfold in the way one would expect.
The fourteenth book in the series may not be the best place to start, but it is a lovely set of books, full of McCall Smith’s warmth for his characters, respect for the setting, and love for people of all sorts, with their foibles and frailties, and their nearly infinite capacity to surprise.