The Miracle at Speedy Motors – and the (sort of) miracle at the Central Library

June 13, 2008 at 9:59 pm (books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural) ()

I just finished listening to the latest in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective series, The Miracle at Speedy Motors. As always, with Lisette Lecat’s subtle and sensitive reading, it was pure delight. Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle humor is mixed with a sadness just as gentle. As he charts the lives of his characters, some feckless, some reserved to the point of timidity, the author’s love of Africa in general and Botswana in particular shines through.

But meanwhile, it’s business as usual for Mma Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Makutsi, Mr. Polopetsi, and the rest of the cast of characters at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors (which also houses the office of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). Mma Ramotswe receives mysterious letters containing veiled – and not so veiled – threats. A woman in search of her family comes to the agency and asks for help. Mma Makutsi and her fiance Phuti Radiphuti, proprietor of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop, make a fateful purchase together: a spacious bed, with a spectacular headboard shaped like a large heart and upholstered in bright red velvet.

And most poignantly, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni goes in search of a cure for the paralysis of Motholeli, the foster daughter that he and Mma Ramotswe are raising in their modest home on Zebra Drive.

One of my favorite scenes in the book occurs as a heavy rain is tapering off:

“Flying ants. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the air was filling with flying ants, rising up from their secret burrows in the rain-softened ground, gaining altitude on beating wings, dipping down again. It was a familiar sight following the rains, one of those sights that took one back to childhood no matter what age one was, and brought to mind memories of chasing these ants, grabbing them from the air, and then eating them, for their peanut-butter taste and crunchiness.

Toward the end of this luminous novel, Mma Ramotswe speaks of ordinary miracles that occur every day. And I couldn’t help thinking of the fact that I was called to fill in at the last minute at my alma mater, the Central Library, Wednesday night – and who should appear but a patron I hadn’t seen a long time who just happens to share my love of British police procedurals!

Okay, maybe not a miracle – but certainly a fortuitous meeting. We fans of that crime fiction category constitute a somewhat small group. For most American readers, familiarity with this subgenre begins and ends with Elizabeth George. Ah, but there is so much more!

Doing readers’ advisory for this patron is a real challenge, as she’s well up on most of the luminaries in the field: Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell, Peter Robinson, et. al. She hadn’t read John Harvey for a while, so I urged to try his latest, as well as Peter Lovesey’s. And I recommended wholeheartedly The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill.* Finally, I hope she tunes into this blog, because for some inexplicable reason, I forgot to tell her about Peter Turnbull! For me, the great challenge of readers’ advisory has always been the need to summon up titles and authors from out of thin air. I keep a running list, and Turnbull is most certainly on it – plus I just wrote a review of Once a Biker **- but still, he didn’t come to mind while the patron was standing in front of me. Only later, when I was back home, did I remember..ah, well, I believe the expression for that is “l’esprit d’escalier” – the perfect riposte you think of as you’re climbing the stairs and heading off to bed.

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I find the simple goodness of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Motholeli deeply moving. And Alexander McCall Smith’s uncanny ability to depict that goodness in a way that is neither cloying nor sentimental is – well, a miracle.

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* I was rather amused to read the following in a review of The Various Haunts of Men, the novel that precedes The Pure in Heart in the Simon Serraiiler series:

“I confess that I had not paid any attention to [Susan Hill] because of her seemingly plain name, which did not cause me to sit up and take notice. Now that I’ve read her, I realize that her name belies her literary complexity.

Well said! And what a refreshingly candid admission from George Easter, the reviewer and the editor/publisher of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

** Since I posted the review of Once a Biker, Martin Edwards has comtributed a thoughful comment. One of the things that has really impressed me in meeting with British writers of crime fiction is their tremendous generosity toward one another.

4 Comments

  1. The year in Mystery: Favorites, Group One, Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. This author is astonishingly prolific. Might he be, possibly, too prolific? I’ve been worried lately that McCall Smith is suffering from media overexposure. Still, that possibility does not detract one iota from his stellar accomplishments in the field of crime fiction. I’m a huge fan, both of Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie […]

  2. Mysteries go global: Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in crime fiction before coming to the subject of the astonishing Alexander McCall Smith.   His Number One Ladies Detective series has an enormous following, and justly so. The books are simultaneously sad and sweet but never […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith Price of Malice – Archer Mayor Second Burial of a Black Prince – […]

  4. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross […]

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