The stories of Alexander "Chuckle" SmithI first heard of Alexander McCall Smith1 in a quiz by Sudarshan. The names "Mma. Precious Ramotswe" and "The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency" were so immediately compelling that for some reason I had convinced myself I was going to be a fan of McCall Smith's writing.
Alexander McCall Smith does not write for a living. He is a bit of an expert in medical law, but that does not seem to be the principal reason he famously wrote a set of detective stories set in Africa. His connections to Africa (he was born in Zimbabwe and worked later in Botswana) seem to have left with a deep empathetic love for the simpler life of the land which are as far removed from the sophisticated "civilisation" in his now native Edinburgh. In fact, all of McCall Smith's stories are set in worlds that he has inhabited for a fair while. And what's more, these are worlds that he seems to have been closely observant of as well.
The first McCall Smith book I read was a collection of three small novels (also known as the "Von Igelfeld Trilogy") under the name "The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom" featuring as protagonist, Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld and two of his academic colleagues. Dr. von Igelfeld is a philologist and a leading light of his very very tiny academic circle. McCall Smith is clearly caricaturing some of his own friends and acquaintances from the academic profession, but he does it politely. He gently pokes fun at their self-inflated egos, their tendency to sometimes be out-of-phase with the real world and their occasional moments of objective clarity. The book makes for extremely funny reading in parts, especially von Igelfeld's adventures with sausage dogs and his visit to America. Some extracts became quietly meditative though, which I soon realised was a McCall Smith trademark.
The next book was his No. 1 bestseller i.e. the debut adventures of Mma. Ramotswe. The name conjured up stock images of a woman, broad hipped, in a colourful print dress, and so on, from the lower African continent, and truth be told, Mma. Ramotswe is of typical African stock. Her detective adventures are not filled with urban angst, nor are they highly cerebral puzzles. The founder of the "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" roots her life in the midst of a vague horizon separating the town and the village in Botswana. Consequently, she solves cases related to missing husbands and recalcitrant daughters, while the most dangerous of assignments is to do with the practice of witchcraft. Amidst all this, the divorced detective ponders on life and marriage offers.
"44 Scotland Street" kicks off the Scotland Street series. In contrast to the other two series mentioned above, the characters in this series are much closer home - members, occasionally lonely, of a modern city which is modern in its problems and so more real to most readers. McCall Smith doesn't forsake the light and simple touch here either, so as we accompany Pat, we meet the others at her apartments, her work and sometimes we even meet a living, recognisable Edinburgh celebrity in a bathtbub.The likes of young Bertie with a sax who yearns to be just a boy, the infuriating Bruce, Chris who has his own sinecure are mixed with baby-adventures in Edinburgh pubs and even underground. Before you read the mini-chapters, read Smith's preface telling you that this book originated from a serial offering he ran in a local newspaper, which is why some of the chapters are so tiny.
In all these books, the writing is simple, of the kind that makes you glad and appreciative of his craft. These are quick reads, but thankfully, each series has a few books awaiting their turn. I haven't got yet to the fourth series, that of The Sunday Philosophy Club. The illustrations are a pleasant bonus2. The stories of Alexander McCall Smith, it must be criticised, move slowly. Nothing earth-shattering really happens (unless if you count the travails of the sausage-dog) most of the time. But that's precisely why you like it. The spikes in our mostly ordinary lives are generated by little bits of virtue and vice, by acts of stupidity and wisdom, through obnoxiousness and embarassment, of conceit and benevolence, with vanity and grace. One eventually realises that each of us is living out a story which is in need of just a half-decent raconteur. Through Alexander McCall Smith's words, some parts of us appear in word portraits. And as we shake our heads at these foibles, we chuckle.
Concurrently posted on the Lit Blog
1: Random House's page
2: By Iain McIntosh 3: Image from Iain McIntosh's site