McCall Smith reveals how he came to run a Swaziland bordello

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For the creator of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, it was a classic moral conundrum. What to do about the queues of gentlemen callers visiting his house in search of his female lodger?

For the creator of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, it was a classic moral conundrum. What to do about the queues of gentlemen callers visiting his house in search of his female lodger?

Alexander McCall Smith, best-selling author, doctor and lawyer, whose books starring a Bots-wanan lady sleuth, Precious Ramotswe, have sold millions, describes for the first time in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine how he found himself running a bordello.

It was 25 years ago and he was teaching law at the University of Swaziland in the kingdom of the same name, a small country tucked between South Africa and Mozambique.

A house came with the job complete with servants' quarters at the back, but as a 30-year-old bachelor, McCall Smith had no need of servants and chose to eat out in a local restaurant.

An unnamed secretary at an office in the nearby town of Manzini asked him if she might rent the servants' rooms, which she had heard were unoccupied. He readily agreed, refusing the offer of payment as he had the house rent-free.

"Then I began to notice that at weekends and on some evenings there was a steady stream of gentlemen callers, and after a while the scales fell from my eyes. A house of ill- repute was being run from the back of my yard."

In an early display of the moral sensitivity that distinguishes his books, McCall Smith did not act immediately to close the operation down. Although it was uncomfortable "to have one's yard used for immoral purposes" he felt it more important to respect local customs and remember who was the guest.

"Anyway, it would have been difficult to prove. The lady in question might simply have said she had many friends. So I minded my own business and did nothing."

The story did not end there and, like his best fiction, contains a satisfying moral twist. One day he was in Manzini when he was approached by a middle-aged man and asked for a lift. The man's name was Albert Dlamini and he claimed to know McCall Smith, though the latter had no memory of ever having met him.

When they reached their destination, the man asked for money - a common enough request in Africa - to which McCall Smith readily responded. They parted and McCall Smith did not expect to see the man again.

A few nights later however, the man returned, startling McCall Smith by peering at him through the uncurtained window. Again he asked for money and again McCall Smith complied, but he added that this would be the last time. The encounter left him feeling "slightly worried".

A few days later, he bumped into his lodger as she was leaving for her day job in Manzini and mentioned his nighttime caller. When, in response to her questioning, he gave the man's name and a short description of him, she replied immediately: "Ah, that is Mr Albert Dlamini, the murderer."

It turned out that the man was a well-known killer who had recently been released from jail. McCall Smith's lady lodger urged him to call her at once if he should reappear.

One Saturday morning the man returned and, following instructions, McCall Smith told him to wait while he fetched his tenant. She was "a large lady, of the sort one might today describe as being of traditional build," and she was clad only in a towel. She ran to the door and screamed at Albert Dlamini while shaking her fist. Although McCall Smith could not understand what was said, the trick worked and the intruder quickly departed. "He won't bother you again," the lady promised.

"Over that weekend I reflected on this entire business and realised that it said something about human obligation and exchange. I had helped her and she had later helped me. Had I been firm with her at the beginning, then Albert Dlamini might have added me to the list of his victims. So we never know what implications our acts will have in the future, not only for others but for oneself."

"That is what I thought, with relief, as I sat on my verandah and looked out over those hills and listened to the cattle bells drifting from across the valley. When I left to return to Scotland, the house of ill-repute closed down."

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