Alexander McCall Smith: The master of the feel-good story

By Boyd Tonkin

Saturday 14 August 2004 00:00

Tonight, the first day of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, will climax in a sold-out celebration of the latest global superstar to emerge from Scotland. This widely worshipped diva can boast fans who range from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and First Lady Laura Bush to bass player Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She takes a generous size 22, adores red bush tea, enjoys solving the emotional and professional problems of her neighbours, and was once, briefly, married to a no-good trumpeter. She lives quietly in the small southern African state of Botswana and - to the distress of millions of fans around the world - does not actually exist.

Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, sadly cannot appear this evening at Charlotte Square Gardens. Her admirers (many more of whom will pack out another Edinburgh show on Monday) will have to make do with her creator: Professor Alexander McCall Smith.

The extraordinary rise of "Sandy" McCall Smith from decent academic obscurity to the 100-flights-a-year schedule of the globetrotting celebrity is a story with a feel-good factor to trump the warming plots of his own books. His second career as a seven-figure bestseller whose numbers now match the Rowlings and the Grishams has moved so far, so fast, that critics and publishers have been left mumbling clichés in its wake. Already prolific as an author of legal monographs and - more discreetly - of children's stories, the professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh published the first novel to feature Mma (ie Mrs or Madame) Ramotswe with the local firm of Polygon in 1998. Nothing much, beyond kind reviews and steady sales, happened for four years. Then, in summer 2002, Ramotswe mania spread like a prairie blaze among the readers of Middle America.

The cult looked like a pure word-of-mouth boom - that Holy Grail of the book business - although it did profit from some starry endorsements: first, on network television, by the equally upbeat bestseller Amy Tan. The attacks of 11 September functions as a glib catch-all explanation for every curious cultural shift these days. In McCall's Smith's case, the aftermath of a collective trauma might genuinely help to account for the triumph of his brand of soothing benevolence. "They've been going through a terrible time domestically," the author said of his American devotees, "and my books are an antidote."

Soon, the US boom echoed back to Britain, and sales soared. Public figures rushed to praise a modern novelist who shunned sensation while painting old-fashioned African - and universal - virtues in tones as clear and open as the vast Botswanan skies. "Mma Ramotswe shouts out of Africa that honesty and respect for traditional values can redeem all the horrors of the headlines," wrote the political commentator Simon Jenkins, in a typical paean. "They can marry happiness to progress. They can save Africa. They can save the world."

Well, they can certainly secure the bottom line. This week, McCall Smith has five No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels in the Top 50. (J K Rowling, his near-neighbour in a plush corner of Edinburgh, can muster only a pair of Potters.) The books' combined UK sales top two million, with that figure far exceeded in the States, while translations are taking Mma Ramotswe into 30 other languages. Last year, McCall Smith won the Saga Award for Wit; this April, he was named as Author of the Year at the British Book Awards.

Alexander McCall Smith was born an African in 1948: the son of a Scottish public prosecutor in Bulawayo, in what was then southern Rhodesia. After a happy late-colonial childhood, he went to the University of Edinburgh and there began a diligent ascent of the academic ladder - a progress punctuated by that memorable stint in Botswana. Until 2001, his sole media exposure came as the author of learned commentaries on those hotly disputed border areas where medicine, law and ethics meet. His many specialist works include The Forensic Aspects of Sleep (surely a title for Mma Ramotswe) as well as the definitive text on Botswana's criminal law. He served until recently as vice-chairman of the UK Human Genetics Commission and as a member of Unesco's International Bioethics Commission. He has advised the Roslin Institute, where Dolly the sheep started her cloned life. Married to a GP, Elizabeth, with two teenage daughters, McCall Smith - famously - employed his vanishing spare time to play a flat bassoon in an Edinburgh scratch ensemble called the Really Terrible Orchestra, which he co-founded.

The sixth novel in his series, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, is released next week by Polygon. McCall Smith left hardback rights with his local publisher as a reward for its loyalty, while Time Warner now markets his British paperbacks. In September, The Sunday Philosophy Club will inaugurate his new venture: a set of Edinburgh-based mysteries starring the philosopher and amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie (perhaps a relative of Miss Jean Brodie?). Precious Ramotswe will then have a rival, although their maker has no plans to close her agency. Another sideline consists of the three comic novellas that feature a hapless German pedant, Professor von Igelfeld. It's fortunate for his readers that McCall Smith enjoys the mind-boggling ability to write 4,000 words in one four-hour session.

This torrent of words flows with a deceptive ease and charm. They tell, in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels, of quietly funny perturbations in the polite pond of suburban Gaborone (Botswana's capital). Precious Ramotswe has sold the 180 cattle bequeathed to her by her father to found the agency. "A detective," her creator says, "is just a useful device to get lots of people into the door and to investigate different areas of society." She operates more as a super-intuitive agony aunt than forensic analyst, while maintaining her decorous courtship with that excellent mechanic, Mr J L B Maketoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

In her small world, ostriches go missing; corruption menaces a beauty pageant; a comfortably-off lady must choose between dubious suitors; and - in a rare outbreak of violence - a crocodile scoffs a man during a baptismal ceremony. Botswana, where McCall Smith lived in the 1980s and set up the national university's school of law, glows with the colours of a lost Eden: a place of small sorrows and huge hearts, where courtesy, respect and forgiveness rule.

Since Classical times, sophisticated urban readers have enjoyed pastoral stories of distant folk who lead simpler but wiser lives. McCall Smith stands squarely in this tradition. His enthusiasts have compared Mma Ramotswe to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, but another model may fit the case more closely - the delicately comic small-town Indian novels of R K Narayan.

In the African context, stable, diamond-rich and democratic Botswana counts as a lucky country. McCall Smith often lauds the peace and prosperity of a "remarkable" land, and connects the solid decency of Mma Ramotswe and her friends to the public mood set by the state's avuncular first president, Sir Seretse Khama. Yet the country also has to endure a less happy distinction: along with Swaziland, it suffers the world's highest rate of HIV infection. According to UN statistics, 37 or 38 per cent of adults are currently affected.

It's not true, as some sceptics have suggested, that the novels simply ignore the Aids pandemic. They do, without doubt, downplay and deflect it, so that sickness or poverty in the background becomes yet another opportunity to exercise the compassion, faith and fortitude that McCall Smith so admires. In his own words, "All those distressing things are just one side of life in Africa. The other is that portrayed here: a world of ordinary human ambitions and activities, in which people drink tea and talk about simple things."

Escapism? Condescension? The first charge might stick, but not the second. Mma Ramotswe gives a sweet voice and a commanding shape to the author's own firm principles. You could also applaud the novels as a truly precious humanistic challenge to what McCall Smith labels as the "heart of darkness" view of Africa. In Botswana itself, people (naturally) welcome the books, but their author also hitches their homespun qualities to a wider perspective on the continent's soul.

"We might remember Nelson Mandela coming out of prison in South Africa and the spirit of forgiveness which shone through his every act," he writes. "People were astonished by this, and deeply impressed. Yet that is a virtue which is very much present in the African tradition." Day after day, the media thrusts at us endless images of "basket-case" Africa. Mma Ramotswe, in deeply refreshing contrast, shows something a little closer to a bed of roses - in moral, if not material, terms.

So far, not many harsh discords have intruded on this uplifting folk tale of virtue rewarded. A few critics have begun to weary of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency formula, and the arrival of Isabel Dalhousie may well prove a shrewd diversification. More contentiously, McCall Smith has moved from his stout defence of Mma Ramotswe's moral code to attacks on writers who live and work by less straightforward norms.

Earlier this year, in fine old-fogeyish style, he rapped the "miserabilism" of low-life Scottish fiction practised by the likes of Irvine Welsh. And he scorned the "aggressive, vulgar, debased" attitudes of profane works such as D B C Pierre's Vernon God Little. In response, the writer and Independent columnist Terence Blacker flayed McCall Smith's "weirdly simple-minded" idea of literature, and pointed out that inoffensive optimists enjoy a far smoother ride to mainstream acclaim than darker novelists. There is, thus far, no evidence that his popularity in the Bush or Rumsfeld households has deepened American concern for Africa's plight, nor that fans of McCall Smith ever go on to discover the continent's wealth of greater but grittier fiction - from Chinua Achebe to J M Coetzee.

All in good time, the ever-patient Precious Ramotswe might reply. For the moment, as McCall Smith asks, "Why should we not feel good? Why should we not see how powerful is love, how healing is forgiveness, how cheering is humour?" And, the cynic will add, how profitable is schmaltz. Cynicism, however, tends to dissolve instantly on contact with his books, where Africa and its hard-pressed people figure for once not as the burden but the glory of the world. For that alone, most readers will surely forgive him the odd off-key blast on his fogey's bassoon.


Born: 24 August 1948 in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia.

Family: Married Elizabeth Parry, a doctor, in 1982; two teenage daughters, Lucy and Emily.

Education: Christian Brothers College, Bulawayo; then LLB and PhD at University of Edinburgh.

Career: Lecturer and reader in law at University of Edinburgh 1974-1995; then professor of medical law, 1978-1991. Novels include: The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998), followed by four sequels, and the new In the Company of Cheerful Ladies.

He says...: "People are fed up with aggressive literature which dwells on selfishness, discourtesy and conflict. These books are intended to be the opposite of that."

They say...: "Envy of these endearingly old-fashioned mores is countered by devout thanks that one doesn't live in the kind of society that makes them possible." - Rhoda Koenig, critic

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