We all seek happiness, but what novelist today would dare to put it in a title without a trace of irony? Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has brought about a number of quiet revolutions, from a burgeoning of the Botswana tourist trade to the notion that "traditionally built" women might be attractive rather than clinically obese. None, however, is quite so remarkable as his insistence that fiction can be about happy people - people, moreover, whose happiness stems from being good and modest, rather than rich and selfish.
Blue Shoes & Happiness is the seventh in the series. Those who have followed it will know that Precious Ramotswe's agency has swelled to include not only her assistant, Mma Makutsi, but Mr Polopetsi, an intelligent man who works for Mma Ramotswe's husband Mr JLB Maketoni at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. All have problems. Mr Polopetsi can't afford a car to help him into work. Mma Makutsi is engaged to the owner of a furniture store in Gabarone, but their future is endangered by her fiancé's suspicion she might be a feminist. Mma Ramotswe is increasingly uncomfortable with her girth and even gets stuck entering her little van.
It is out of such apparently mundane details, as much as the pleasures of solving crime, that the series has gained its following. The leisurely tone harks back to a lost age of civility and kindliness. In Blue Shoes & Happiness, there is a nostalgia for the old ways of Botswana that include skills such as knowing how to make a pressed mud floor, greet another person and tell old tales.
Such nostalgia is universal to all cultures, and extending it to Africa - a continent that Europeans often see as heinously backward - is salutary. To some, this presentation of Botswana as a land of "old morality" rather than drought, rape and Aids will be anathema. To Mma Ramotswe, the recipe is simple: "Take one country... with its kind people, and their smiles, and their habit of helping one another; ignore all this; shake about; add modern ideas; bake until ruined."
There are bad husbands, drought and children made orphans by "that terrible disease", but more pressing problems are local. As Mma Makutsi tells her fiancé, "Mma Ramotswe does not solve crimes. She deals with very small things...but our lives are made up of small things."
These are simple people but not remotely stupid ones, and exactly the kind most often ignored by fiction. The irony is that this very traditional heroine is, of course, a feminist, just like Mma Makutsi - not the sort who wants to sweep men away, but who works to make sure that good wins over bad. The crimes she solves are almost all domestic. A cook suspects her boss is feeding her fat husband food meant for students; there is an odd atmosphere at a game park; and a nurse who sees a doctor make mistakes in reading blood pressure. The first two are quickly solved, the last is more topical. None has quite the same visceral impact as those in the earlier novels, which featured child kidnap, crocodiles and a white woman searching for her lost son.
This strikes me as a pity. Nothing will dim the charm of McCall Smith's series, with its portraits of goodness, its sorrow over greed and its profound love of Africa. They are among the greatest comfort-reads of all time, written in plain, elegant prose. Yet in focusing quite so much on the smaller picture, this latest book is in danger of losing the bigger background. The author is wise to have made an art out of the small good things of life, treasured like the water his heroine tips each day onto the parched roots of individual plants; but now, I would sacrifice some of the happiness his book gave me to see just a little more misery, and a little more truth.
Amanda Craig's 'Love in Idleness' is published by AbacusReuse content