The long-running No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series relies on a careful balance between new stories — usually cases that the agency is called on to solve — and deeper development of its continuing characters. Too much of the former, and it runs the danger of reading like an episode of old-style television: dramatic events that leave the main characters exactly as they were at the beginning of the story. Too much of the latter and it runs the risk of reading like the latest installment of a soap opera. As much as I have written that I like stories that arise from the nature of the characters, I think How to Raise an Elephant tipped a bit toward the soap operatic. The beloved characters — Mma Ramotswe, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, Fanwell, Charlie, Mma Potokwani and more — are all present in this book, and are as charming as ever, but I found it a little light on detecting.
If a series has reached its twenty-first volume and the main complaint that I have is that the recurring characters recur a little too much, then that is definitely praising with faint damnation. There are many joys in How to Raise an Elephant from pithy but contrasting observations of the same scene by different characters to subtle communications between long-time friends and colleagues, from homespun meditations by Mma Ramotswe to antics of the children at the orphanage that Mma Potokwani runs. On the other hand, these hallmarks of familiarity make the book a less than ideal entry point to the series. Long-time readers will be pleased, newer readers may be baffled.
The story that gives the novel its title begins when Charlie, the remaining apprentice mechanic at the garage that shares premises with the detective agency, borrows Mma Ramotswe’s little white van but it cagey about the reason. She remains a trusting soul, despite many years as a detective, and allows him to use her beloved vehicle. Charlie has spent the last few volumes in the series growing out of his past as a footloose and fancy-free young man, but this latest escapade threatens to set him back in the eyes of the people at the garage and the agency, where he now works part-time as an assistant detective. He brings the van back with a little damage and neglects to tell Mma Ramotswe. Charlie may have matured a bit, but he still hasn’t realized that leaving a mystery lying around a detective agency might not be the best idea.
The other major storyline concerns a distant cousin of Mma Ramotswe who has in a roundabout way asked for money. Mma Ramotswe is torn between the Botswana tradition of helping family, no matter how distant the relation, and the feeling that all is not well with the story that her cousin has told. She investigates, and things are not as they seem, though as the novel progresses, the things that were not what they seemed turn out to be yet different. All of the turns show more about Botswana and its neighbors, about the old ways and the new days, and human nature of a more general sort.
The series remains a delight, a world I am happy to enter for a few pleasant hours to have some tea and find out what has happened in a particular corner of Botswana.