Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe
By Alexander McCall Smith

For anyone unfamiliar with this title, it is the second in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series written by Rhodesian-born, Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. Smith spent a significant portion of his life teaching at the University of Botswana and subsequently immortalized the overwhelming quaintness of the southern African nation in this series of novels. There are twelve of these novels now with a thirteenth installment expected this year, so I'm terribly far behind in my reading. My apologies to those who like their book blogs to be up to date. As of press time, I've only seen the first three in town.

For those unfamiliar with the first novel, the series centers around Mma Precious Ramotswe, a middle-aged woman who, upon the death of her father, sells the family cattle and sets up the only private detection agency run by a woman in all of Gaborone. The first book in the series used a mixture of episodes (individual mysteries) and flashbacks woven into a larger, over-arching mystery about human body parts and witch doctors. It was a great introduction to one of modern literature's great detectives.

The second novel strays from the episodic tone of the first and concentrates more on the development of characters introduced in the first, namely Mma Ramotswe's impossibly wonderful fiancĂ©, Rra J. B. L. Matekoni,  and Mma Makutsi, the overachieving secretary at the agency (who gets the promotion she has always craved). A host of new characters are also introduced which will, no doubt, become reoccurring characters in the subsequent novels (If you've read the subsequent, forgive me if I'm wrong and it turns out that Mma Ramotswe sells the agency to become Botswana's No. 1 Ladies cricket batsman or something).

While there are still cases to be solved, unlike the first novel, each of them weave themselves into a larger, more developed plot line. Each of the main characters (Mma Ramotswe, J.B.L. Matekoni and Mma Makutsi) follows their own narratives which connect and diverge throughout the novel. I suppose this was a calculated tactic used by Smith to expand his fictional world in Gaborone. I suppose it was a good idea since had he concentrated entirely on Mma Ramotswe he would have accomplished little else than creating an African version of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple.

what I liked about both the first novel and Tears of the Giraffe is the extraordinarily simple English used in the narrative. I can totally understand why someone might find this sort of language use grating and borderline insulting toward the people of Botswana, it has a certain folksy charm that reminds me a whole lot of Mark Twain (that is, if his frog jumping contest occurred in Molepolole rather than Calaveras County). I always tell my advanced students to write in their own voice and Smith's voice is so much his own I could identify it from a hundred paces.

My only qualm about this novel is an offshoot of it's strength. In an effort to be quaint, Smith rarely puts his characters in the face of any real danger. Perhaps it is a purposeful attempt to over-state the traditional values and peaceful demeanor of Batswana, but I never really felt like any of the main characters were confronted with anything resembling a real conflict. The greatest threat to Mma Ramotswe's position as the No. 1 Lady Detective is foiled before she ever finds out about it. Both J. B. L. Matekoni and Mma Makutsi's conflicts resolve is similarly unremarkable fashion.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for a shootout at the Okavango Delta or anything, but dialing up the drama just a little wouldn't compromise the quaintness of the story. I got the impression (and will continue to believe so going into book three) that the sun shines out these people's asses.

Overall, I dig this series. I have used book one with my more advanced novel study students in Taiwan and they always like it (plus, it goes a long way toward dispelling a billion, trillion myths that Taiwanese people seem to have about Africa). My issues with the series are minor and, who knows, perhaps things will heat up on the Kalahari in books three through thirteen. I'm sure to find out. I'm entirely sucked into this series at this point.

Just what I need.

Another series.


Little Girl Lost said...

I dig this series too :) I wrote a review of the first book, do check it out...
loved your review! do visit!

Ryan said...

I did! Thanks!

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