Two plots carry the action forward in The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, the fifteenth in Alexander McCall Smith’s series about Botswana’s first detective agency run by women. In slight contrast to its immediate predecessor, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the two plots are not both cases taken on by the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, its owner Precious Ramotswe, and her newly promoted partner in the agency, Grace Makutsi. One is, of course; McCall Smith has played around with the conventions of the genre, but not enough to do away with detecting entirely. A prosperous Indian family engages the agency to find out the story behind a woman who came to their household a couple of weeks previously. She appears to have no memory of events prior to turning up at their gate with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and if her background cannot be filled in, the Botswana authorities may deport her.
The other plotline draws on Mma Makutsi’s rise in the world. Coming from a poor background in one of the poorest parts of Botswana, Mma Makutsi did well in her education, and had a lucky break when Mma Ramotswe hired her at the detective agency. Since then, she has married a man of means and become a mother. Now she wishes to do something with her entrepreneurial energies. She decides to start a café.
Not all businesses prosper. Increasing amounts of electronics in cars, and changing tastes in cars more generally, mean less work for Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the garage owned by Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Faced with a threat by the bank to freeze his account if he continues to be overdrawn, he decides he must let go one of his helpers, Charlie, the long-time apprentice for whom the word “incorrigible” seems to have been coined. Charlie takes it hard, and Mma Ramotswe decides to stretch her resources — effectively taking out a loan against some cattle she owns — to offer him a chance as an apprentice detective in her agency.
That choice opens up other conflicts. Mma Makutsi, who is now a partner in the agency, has a famously argumentative relationship with Charlie, and now Mma Ramotswe has hired him without consulting her. Charlie has proven himself irresponsible on numerous previous occasions. Her husband is dubious. Even Mma Potokwane, matron of a nearby orphanage and steady counsel for Mma Ramotswe is uncertain, particularly on the point of taking out a loan against cattle, the traditional measure of wealth in old Botswana.
The intersection of these three stories provides the thematic material for The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café. One is a meditation on obligation. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni feels an obligation to Charlie, but not to the extent of sacrificing his whole business to keep one apprentice on. Mma Ramotswe decides to take on Charlie, but what of her obligation to Mma Makutsi, her partner in the agency business? Will Charlie live up to his new responsibilities? The case of the woman with no memory bring in other instances of obligation. The Indian community in Gaborone feels an obligation to look after its members; that is the motivation that Mr Sengupta gives for taking in an unknown woman. Events surrounding the opening of the café also give Mma Makutsi reason to consider her obligations, and even to take on new ones.
The other major topic of consideration is truth. It’s a slippery one in the detective business. Clients often aren’t telling the truth, or at least all of it. Detectives inevitably come across wrongdoers, who obviously have a different relationship with the truth. But Mma Ramotswe also has a bit of a slippery relationship with truth; she is perfectly willing to let people believe things that are not entirely true if it helps her to pursue her investigations. For example, she asks people at a house if they have seen a cat, letting them think that she is asking about her cat, when it’s merely a conversational opening for her. She does not lie, exactly, but only in a narrowly defined sense. She also calls on one of Botswana’s deepest social obligations, giving water to thirsty people, as a means to enter a house and begin a conversation that could help her uncover the mystery of the woman without a memory. Questions about Charlie’s willingness to tell the truth about some events show another side of the matter, and the resolution of one of the major plotlines turns on decisions about how much truth to tell.
In the end, questions of character and life are more what the book is about than any detective case. Spending time with these good people of Gabarone is never less than a delight, and a spur to think about how life is lived, both there and elsewhere. The fifteenth book may not be the ideal place to start reading a series, but there’s nothing in this book that depends on previous events. It’s self-contained, though greater knowledge of the characters does lead to deeper appreciation of what’s happening to them.