A Song of Comfortable Chairs by Alexander McCall Smith

The back cover asserts that A Song of Comfortable Chairs is “the one where Mma Potokwani saves the day,” and indeed she does, but this deep into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, getting there is all of the fun. Which is just as well, because all of this book’s storylines emerge from actions of the recurring characters. From time to time, Mma Romotswe worries that her agency does not have enough clients, or takes on too many pro bono cases, and A Song of Comfortable Chairs could be an example of where those worries come from. On the other hand, the off-hand remarks about follow-up, billing, and filing do at least imply the existence of paying clients, even if they are off-stage for this particular book.

A Song of Comfortable Chairs by Alexander McCall Smith

There are several days that need saving. First, the furniture business owned and managed by Mma Makutsi’s husband is facing new competition that appears to have an uncanny knack of knowing just when his store will be having a special promotion, and how deep the discounts will be. The competitors have been cutting their prices even more right at the same time, capturing price-sensitive customers. These rivals are also importing sleek, modern chairs at a price that can’t be matched by traditionally built Botswana chairs. The imports are supported by an advertising campaign that emphasizes their stylishness and modernity, and that is helping the rivals snag customers who are conscious about their image. The competition is really putting the squeeze on Mma Makutsi’s husband’s business, which had hitherto been very prosperous. Having grown comfortable after her marriage, she is spooked by a possible slide back toward the poverty that she knew as a girl and worked so hard to escape.

On a more positive note, Mma Makutsi discovers that a friend from childhood has come to live in Gaborone. The friend, whose name is Patience, has had a difficult life, but it has recently taken a positive turn. She has moved to Gaborone with a very kind man. The problem is that Patience has a fourteen-year-old son who is in the throes of adolescence, who has been uprooted from a life he knew, and who has decided to make as many things difficult as he can. Patience’s new partner is forgiving, but is nearing the end of his rope. Patience could do with a little saving, too.

Beyond the cases, there are other sources of tension. In her years with the agency, Mma Makutsi has been in the habit of giving herself promotions, at least in title. In the first chapter of A Song of Comfortable Chairs, she has her desk measured for an extension that would make it bigger than Mma Ramotswe’s. She also uses some of her own money to purchase a brass nameplate. Mma Ramotswe does not think that Mma Makutsi would try to promote herself to boss, but if clients come in and see a bigger desk with a brass nameplate with letters suggesting a degree, what conclusion are they likely to draw? To date, Mma Ramotswe has always been able to find a way to accommodate her colleague’s ambition, but could this be a step too far? As long as her husband’s furniture business continues, she does not really need the money she earns at the agency; could this be a declaration of independence by Mma Makutsi?

The real joy of the book, for me, did not come from the cases or from the latent conflict within the agency, it came from the set pieces and asides. For example, there is a chapter in which Mma Makutsi and Mma Ramotswe are on their way to the orphan farm to visit with Mma Potokwani, and they have decided to surprise her with a generous lunch of meat pies and chips (British use of the word). Savoring the smell of the freshly made chips leads to the desire to test them just a little bit for quality control, with some follow-up to make sure… They arrive at the orphan farm just in time for Mma Potokwani to invite them to a substantial lunch, prepared by one of the best cooks among the house mothers, who would be disappointed if they had less than full servings and seconds. McCall Smith’s restraint in describing the scenes makes them all the more hilarious, as one thing inevitably leads to another.

Or the paragraph prompted by Mma Ramotswe encountering Patience in a pharmacy, in tears. She reflects on handkerchiefs and the detective business:

She pressed into the other woman’s hand the copious white handkerchief that she always carried for just such eventualities. It was, she once explained to Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, part of her professional equipment — just as a tyre-lever or a battery charger might be for him. There were occasions on which a client might be overcome with emotion, as when, at the end of an investigation, a distressing fact might need to be revealed. That could easily happen in a matrimonial matter, where a suspicion of infidelity might be confirmed, or in a missing-person case when a blank has been drawn and hopes must be gently let down. Of course, there were cases when the handkerchief was not needed at all, and the client surprised her with an entirely unexpected reaction — as in one case when a woman for whom she was acting greeted the news of her husband’s unfaithfulness with whoops of delight. She had been hoping, she confessed, that another woman would take him off her hands and was very pleased that this had now occurred. (p. 107)

Nearly everyone among the recurring characters weighs in on how to get better behavior from Patience’s son, Modise, with Mma Ramotswe practically the only one advocating for understanding and addressing his psychological needs. A Song of Comfortable Chairs sets up the possibility that Patience and Modise will become recurring characters in the series, and I hope that they do because they would be interesting additions to the cast, a bit like the Mr Polopetsi, who works mainly as a chemistry teacher but who has helped at both Mr J.L.B. Matekoni’s garage and at the detective agency. On the other hand, recent books in the series have shown very little of Mma Ramotswe’s actual children, to the extent that I wonder if maybe McCall Smith is no longer sure what to do with them.

Other than that, Mma Potokwani does indeed save the day, perhaps with a little help from an unexpected quarter.

A Song of Comfortable Chairs is the twenty-third book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and it would probably be a bewildering place to start, particularly because there is practically no traditional detecting in the book. It’s a good book, but it’s not a good entry point.

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