To the Land of Long Lost Friends begins with a wedding and moves quickly to a funereal subject.
And it was on the way [to the catering tent] that Mma Ramotswe suddenly gripped Mr J.L.B. Matekon’s arm.
“I have seen a ghost, Rra,” she said, her voice filled with alarm.
He looked at her in astonishment, uncertain whether to laugh.
“There,” hissed Mma Ramotswe. “There, Rra — right over there.”
He looked where she was pointing. There was a group of four women and two men, each dressed in their wedding best. …
“Those are people, Mma,” he said. “They are not ghosts, as far as I can see.”
She shook her head. Lowering her voice, she said, “One of them is late, Rra. That one over there — she is late.” …
“That’s definitely her, Rra,”she said, her voice still uneven with shock. “That woman over there. That’s Calviniah. And she’s late. She’s definitely late.”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni frowned. “Who is this Calviniah, Mma Ramotswe? I really don’t know what you’re talking about. There are no late people here, Mma.” He shrugged helplessly. …
“I have seen a very old friend — somebody I knew a long time ago, from schooldays. She went off to live up in Francistown and I lost touch with her, and with her family too. Then …” she trailed off. The woman was coming towards them now, still talking to the group around her.
“Then?” asked Mr J.L.B. Matekoni.
“Then I read in the papers that she had been killed in a road accident. There was a picture of her in the press. I couldn’t get to the funeral because it was up north…”
Mma Ramotswe put a hand to her mouth, in a gesture of profound shock. The woman in the hat had suddenly stopped, and was staring at her. Then, very quickly, she ran forwards towards Mma Ramotswe, stopping just short of her. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni stood quite still. Things had happened so quickly, and he was uncertain what to do.
“Precious Ramotswe?” The woman spoke loudly.
Mma Ramotswe nodded. “Calviniah…”
Calviniah took a step forward, her arms wide. “I thought it was you” she said. “And it is you, isn’t it?” …
Calviniah turned back to Mma Ramotswe and embraced her friend. “It is so long,” she said. “It is so very long.”
“I thought you were late,” Mma Ramotswe struggled to say. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Calviniah drew back and laughed. “Oh, that? That was very unfortunate.”
Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s eyes widened. That was one way of putting it, he thought.
Calviniah let out an amused shriek. “No! I am definitely not late, as I hope you can see. No, that was a big mistake by the newspaper. There was another Calviniah Ramoroka, you see.” (pp. 13–17)
Twenty-one books into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, McCall Smith can not only pull off lovely and hilarious set pieces like this one — the explanation gets even better — but he can remind readers that despite their long acquaintance with the characters there is still much more to learn about them.
The book, like the others in the series, follows several strands. A few days after the wedding, Mma Ramotswe and Calviniah meet to catch up on each other’s lives, since Calviniah, news reports to the contrary, is actually having one. During the conversation it comes out that Calviniah’s daughter has recently become distant, leaving her sad and puzzled. Mma Ramotswe does not promise to take this question on as an official case, but over the course of the book she takes an interest and begins to follow some threads. One official case concerns a wife who thinks her husband is having an affair when he claims he is learning more mathematics. There is also a matter (though not a case) of another friend who seems to have given all of her considerable money, plus a very nice Mercedes Benz, to a new reverend who is making waves in Gabarone.
To the Land of Long Lost Friends also gives greater depth to Charlie, the remaining apprentice in Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage, who is also a part-time assistant with the detective agency. Long a ne’er-do-well in the series, Charlie found someone in The Colours of All the Cattle, and McCall Smith shows more of the hurdles that their different backgrounds produce, along with unexpected turns and solutions.
Alongside the plots, McCall Smith takes the time to have characters muse and reminisce.
The teacher nodded. “All of that, Mma. That is all progress, and nobody would want to stop progress, would they, Mma?”
She looked at Mma Ramotswe. There was a note of wistfulness in her voice, a note suggesting that there were, perhaps, times when one might want to do just that — to stop progress. Not that one could admit it publicly, of course; progress was one of those things that everybody was expected to believe in, and if you did not, then you might be mocked and accused of living in the past. And yet, were there not things about the old Botswana that were good and valuable, just as there were things like that in every country? The habit of not being rude to people; the habit of treating old people with respect because they had seen so many things and had worked hard for so many years; the habit of keeping some things private that deserved to be kept private, and not living one’s life in a showy way, under the eyes of half the world; the habit of being charitable, and not laughing at others, or speaking ill of them. These were things that everybody respected in the old Botswana, in that time, still remembered by some, before people learned to be selfish. (p. 73)
Not all of the musings are as serious, or indeed as charitable.
Mma Ramotswe glanced down at [Mma Potokwani]’s feet. They were on the large side, and they reminded her at that moment of the bottom sections of the concrete pillars of that new bridge on the outskirts of town; but she did not say anything about that, of course, as it is rude to make civil engineering comparisons when talking about a friend’s personal features. (p. 140)
Along the way, all of the mysteries introduced at the book’s beginning are solved, even if not all of the situations are resolved.
“I think we tell the mother the truth,” [Charlie] answered. “We tell her and then she will know why her daughter is behaving as she is.”
Mma Makutsi was worried. “I don’t feel that will help that poor lady,” she said. “Perhaps we should think about things before we do anything.”
“That won’t change anything, Mma,” said Charlie.
“Perhaps not,” Mma Ramotswe said. “But then there is never any harm in thinking, Charlie. You never know what will come of it.” (p. 183)
And indeed some good things come of it. To the Land of Long Lost Friends changes some of the characters at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but gently, and just a little bit. The stories are a pleasure to read, and the characters are a joy to see in action.