The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

Strong on charm, but short on intrigue
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The Independent Culture

This novel carries the byline "More from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency". No clue to its setting in Botswana, but plenty of suggestiveness, most of which will disappoint. In this book there are no feminist pursuits of adulterous partners, nor any Hercule Poirots on the trail of murderous colonels. Indeed, there is hardly any detection and certainly no crime, apart from the substitution of a rotten car engine by a garage mechanic. This is a new kind of detective story, strong on winsome charm but short on puzzle or intrigue.

Unlike most genre fiction, the Ladies' Detective Agency stories do not have a strong setting or plot which distinguishes one from another. We remember a novel by PD James as the one set in a publishing house, or monastery, or museum. In other detective fiction it might be the nature of the deed or character of the criminal which gives individuality to a trusted formula. Not so with Alexander McCall Smith's books.

Precious Ramotswe, tweely described as "Botswana's only - and finest - female private detective", is as low-key a central character as I have ever encountered in a successful series. She has a little, but oh so little, of that quietly forensic observation from the sidelines of human misdemeanour in which Miss Marple specialises. Perhaps this novel may be recalled because it is the one in which Mma Ramotswe finally gets married, but I doubt it.

McCall Smith clearly has a love affair with Botswana. His affection for its landscapes, customs and local speech permeates not only this book, but the four earlier novels. Gaborone and its surroundings are pleasantly, even poetically, evoked. The inevitable dry season, for example, would last "until the purple clouds stacked up in the east and the wind brought the smell of rain - rain which would fall in silver sheets over the land ... and the dryness would become an ache". This is not the Botswana of rampant HIV-Aids, of defiant defence of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe, or of corruption in the diamond industry.

In The Full Cupboard of Life Precious investigates a rich lady's list of eligible suitors. There are four names, but the novel allows space for her to delve only into the characters of two. She also steers her fiancé away from a dangerous parachute jump, and towards the altar. She passes silent commentary on foibles of human nature, but rarely says anything that might cause awkwardness, as a result of which she remains everyone's friend. And that's about it. The pleasure of the novel lies in its simplicity.

How does one account for the success of these books? In a melancholy world Mma Ramotswe's goodness is heart-warming, if not cloying. McCall Smith's writing itself harks back to a more tranquil age, where gentle ironies and strict proprieties prevail and the computer does not exist. Mr J L B Matekoni, referred to thus every time he is mentioned, finally marries Precious, as much a gentleman of the old school as she is a paragon of disappearing virtues. This is a reassuring book, calm, good-humoured: perfect summer's reading and, like summer, quickly over, leaving hardly a whiff behind.