Following on from Kernel Morgan’s review last week of THE NOVEL HABITS OF HAPPINESS we thought we would back it up with another Alexander McCall Smith novel from one of his other book series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. We did mention that Smith is definitely prolific, so here Morgan’s review of the 15h book in the series, THE HANDSOME MAN’S DE LUXE CAFE. This whodunnit/ mystery is also released from our friends at Hachette Australia. It is out now at all good book stores or you can obtain it from HERE.
THE HANDSOME MAN’S DE LUXE CAFÉ is the fifteenth instalment in Alexander McCall Smith’s series THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY. As with all the previous instalments, the story is set in Gaborone, Botswana, Africa and centres around the sweet-natured, kind, and gentle Madam Precious Ramotswe. She is the owner and lead detective in the Agency, and always succeeds by using her intelligence, courage, and instinct. The series is classified as anthropological detective fiction, because the culture of the characters plays a major role in the stories. In this novel Precious is tasked with discovering the identity of a newly arrived Indian woman with amnesia.
Precious’s husband – a garage business owner with a formal name, Mr J.L.B Makeloni – fires young mechanic, Charlie. Precious hires Charlie as an apprentice detective. Characters pontificate about waiting-room magazines, what men dream, Prince Charles, female intuition, and Pilates. Precious investigates only one client case, with the assistance of Charlie, She gets results by using her perceptiveness and old fashioned footwork.
Indian office supplies merchant Mr Senagupta, and his sister Miss Rose, ask the Agency to investigate the identity of a woman who has arrived at their house with no idea of who she is, or where she’s from. The mystery woman is also Indian. She says she can’t remember anything about herself: not even her age or name. When interviewed, the mystery woman says “I don’t remember what happened before I arrived at the house of these kind people,” and referring to her memory “There is nothing there. It is as if I had started to live a few days ago only.”
The Agency is hired to find out who this woman is before the authorities deport her to South Africa. She wants to stay in Mr Senagupta’s home and become a legal resident of Botswana. “This lady has no papers – no passport, no driving licence, nothing” says Mr Senagupta. Immigration said if he “engaged somebody to find out who she is”, somebody suitable, they would “delay expelling her” by six months. Grace tells Charlie “You can borrow my van. Park it in a place that is not too obvious, and wait to see who leaves the house she is staying in. Then follow her and see where she goes.”
Charlie accidentally collides with the facts when giving a lift to an attractive young woman in the office vehicle. This leads Precious to a strange shelter that does not allow men – “We get women here who are at the end of their tethers” she says – and a woman named Maria who tells the tale of Lakshmi. Lakshmi is escaping an older wealthy husband from Durban, South Africa. In her marriage, shouting led to hitting and mockery, and suspicions led to allegations of flirting with other men. Precious reveals she also once had a partner, a man named Note Mokoti, who abused and intimidated her.
Precious deliberates on the morality and functionality of arranged marriages: “As a younger woman she had been offended by the thought of arranged marriages and wondered how anybody could enter into one: how could one accept the choice of others in such a private matter? But then, as she saw more of these, she increasingly realised that they tended to work, at least where the arranged marriage was consensual. Perhaps one of the reasons for this, she thought, was that compatibility was something that families could judge, perhaps even better than the man and woman themselves.”
Madam Grace Makutsi is a new partner in the Agency, and the owner of the new Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café. She has recently given birth to a little boy, Itumeleng, and is adjusting to her promotion from being the Agency’s secretary. This novel is a return to Grace’s outspokenness and tactlessness, due to her new role and the stress of starting a new business. She has come a long way from Bobonong.
An unconventional chef brings out the worst in Grace. Her talking shoes advise her what not to eat. As food is served, Grace receives a communication from her red shoes with the rosettes. “I wouldn’t touch that, Boss!” and “This sauce is made of lies”. Her husband Phuti is troubled by “small mouth”, “big mouth”, and “the dish of yesterday” being on the menu.
This novel is full of fluffy philosophy about how life should be lived, and all the characters are nicer than anyone you would ever meet in real life. Precious studies the behaviour of people, and solves problems by being nice and talking things through. These novels were not really crime novels. Cases rarely involve actual crimes or violence, and there is little mystery or detective work. The cases tackled in earlier books involve mild matters – investigating entrants in a beauty pageant or cheating spouses. These books are more morality tales with updates about the gentle rhythms of day to day life of familiar characters.
Alexander McCall Smith is a white man who was born in Zimbabwe. He lived briefly in Botswana, and visits there almost every year. He created this series because he thought it was a pity that there is so much negative media regarding Africa. He wanted to show readers all over the world that there are many remarkable people living in Botswana; people who lead good lives, with honour and integrity. He admires the people of Botswana for their patience and decency.
I liked this little common-sense opinion from Madam Precious Ramotswe on the topic of security “But if you put up an electric fence, then every burglar in town is going to say, ‘That’s the house we need to break into – that one with the electric fence. That means there are some very expensive things inside. They will be very well worth stealing.’
I didn’t like that Precious and Grace are referred to by such formal titles, Madam Ramotswe and Madam Makutsi respectively (and with the abbreviation Mma to represent Madam). It felt very colonial, and borders on making the characters buffoonish. It also puts a distance between the reader and these otherwise highly relatable women.
This series lends itself well to audio. It has been serialised into a radio-play by the BBC and all fifteen books are available on Audible as audiobooks. It is recommended to start at the beginning and be prepared to enter a simple G-rated world where anything can be resolved with a slice of fruit cake and cup of redbush tea.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.