The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith

September 1, 2007 at 1:05 pm (Mystery fiction)

zebra-drive.jpg I have just finished listening to this eighth installment in the saga of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and all I can say is, I hope this series never ends! There are few others in which I feel so personally involved in the lives of the characters. It is such a joy to watch Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, et. al. as they go about their busy, incident-rich lives. And poor Charlie, Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni’s hapless apprentice! But you’ll have to read this book yourself to find out about that particular adventure, more properly termed a misadventure, and one of major proportions, that’s for sure!

I read somewhere that when a group of actual private investigators was asked which novelistic treatment of their profession was most true to life, this was the series they cited. Short term inquiries concerning missing persons and wayward spouses – these, they said, were their bread and butter, rather than complex murder investigations that, by the time the novel’s climax arrives, have escalated into truly cosmic events!

red-harvest.jpg (I am reminded at this juncture of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in which, by the time the Continental Op has taken care of business in the town of Personville – or “Poisonville” – the body count has reached something like twenty-three! Yes, I know, that’s at the extreme other end of the spectrum – but still, an apt example, not to mention a great excuse to feature this fabulous noir cover art!)

One of the inquiries that Mma Ramotswe takes up in Good Husband involves several mysterious deaths at a hospital in her home town of Mochudi. In the course of her investigation, she interviews one Dr. Cronje. Mma Ramotswe, observing the doctor’s green eyes and soft features, recognizes that he is part Afrikaner and part African. But not only that: the doctor’s demeanor, sober and melancholy, leads her to conclude – correctly – that he is a deeply unhappy person. He does not fit in at the hospital – indeed, despite his hard work and conscientious efforts, does not fit in anywhere.

Toward the end of their interview, Mma Ramotswe has this to say to Dr. Cronje: “Don’t think, Rra…that what you are doing, your work at the hospital up there, is not appreciated. Nobody might ever have said thank you to you, but I do now, Rra. I say thank you for what you do.” This sad and lonely man is quietly moved by Mma Ramotswe’s declaration.

This kind of simple, direct goodness, without sentimentality, is a hallmark of this remarkable series of novels. It is one of the main qualities, I think, that has served to enchant readers ever since the appearance of The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in 1998. One of the other qualities is the comic relief, which often comes courtesy of Mma Ramotswe’s assistant – soon to be “associate” – detective, Mma Makutsi. The first thing any reader of this series learns about her is that she achieved a score of 97 percent on her final exam at the Botswana Secretarial College. McCall Smith is at pains to remind us – continually! – of this fact. A certificate attesting to Mma Makutsi’s achievement has pride of place on the wall of the agency’s office.

Mma Makutsi is also something of a clothes horse. When she appears in the office one morning in a new red dress, Mma Ramotswe main worry is that her assistant’s stylish threads will show up the agency’s shabby filing cabinets!

I want to make an additional observation about the character of Dr. Cronje. As a medical professional of mixed race who is at home nowhere, and who, despite his service to humanity is subject to, at worst, scorn, and at best, indifference, from those around him, he reminded me – much to my surprise – of Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone.

[Fans of this series might be interested to know that a film is in the works. See this article from the Christian Science Monitor.]

1 Comment

  1. In a race to the finish line, I finish The Girl Who Played with Fire… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] from the scene. (I find myself thinking of the sad and wistful locution one encounters in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective series: “He is […]

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