Mar 8, 2011

[Books] Tears of the Giraffe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 2)

Tears of the Giraffe (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 2)Given my appreciation for logic and puzzles, you'd think that I'd be more of a mystery kind of guy. But apart from reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, I haven't really ventured much into the book genre. I've seen a number of murder mysteries as TV shows and movies but it's never really translated into my reading habits.

But every now and then it becomes hard to ignore the public support for a particular author. The bookstores start to feature him or her as the author of the month and the books get prime spots on store shelves. By that point it all becomes next to impossible to ignore.

That's the story of my relationship with Alexander McCall Smith. His books about an African detective agency were outside my normal reading scope but the press around the books was pretty good. Plus the covers were nicely colorful and the snippets I browsed here and there did seem rather promising. So I picked up a box set of the books a few years ago and I've been slowly making my way through them. It's only recently that I've decided to explore the books in earnest - partly because I seriously enjoyed the TV mini-series based on some of the books.

Alexander Mccall Smith signing books in Helsin...Image via WikipediaTears of the Giraffe is the second book in Alexander McCall Smith's series of mystery novels known as The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. It takes place immediately after first novel in terms of chronology and features more cases and more stories of Precious Ramotswe.

In terms of the running developments in Mma Ramotswe's life, our lady detective is now engaged to be married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns the local garage. As she goes about her cases, we find out more about J.L.B. Matekoni's life, his very difficult maid Florence and free work he does for the orphanage run by Mma Potokwane. In the course of the novel he deals with how to go about getting an engagement ring for Precious Ramotswe, agree upon living arrangements and even consider the prospects of having children.

On the case front, Mma Ramotswe is faced with a mystery involving a missing American that had been abandoned by the police many years before. But for some reason she takes the case anyway and sets out to figure out what may have happened to the young man. At the same time, her secretary Mma Makutsi is promoted to the position of assistant detective (with her secretarial functions intact) and is given a case of her own. But determining whether or not the butcher's wife is having an affair turns out to be a far more complex moral dilemma than she anticipated.

The book follows the same light style as the first which makes it read almost like one of Aesop's fables or some other "traditional" children's story. This is not meant to belittle the writing in any way - instead if gives it a unique sense of charm that unique to the series and sets the tone for African life, at least from the perspective of the author. Whether or not this is really how things go, it does present an interesting view of a continent that we normally associate with famine and lack of technological development.

The very practical, common sense manner in which Mma Ramotswe solves her cases is always entertaining and refreshing. We don't have all the trappings of modern police dramas with the need for high technology and convoluted investigations. Instead we have a simple yet smart woman who knows how to temper logic against intuition in order to solve her cases. While at times it may feel like she only gets the very simple cases that are indeed easy to solve, it reflects the nature of crimes in Botswana and are more appropriate to the culture. At the same time, she isn't a police officer, thus her resolutions don't necessarily need to end with the law seeing things through. Instead she metes out justice as would a mother, making sure the punishments (if needed) fit the crime appropriately.

I liked the character growth illustrated in this particular book. Not only did we get to understand a lot more just how kind J.L.B. Maketoni is, we also got to see more of Mma Makutsi along with giving her character a real chance to become more than what she is. Given how her intelligence has been often passed over in favor of better-looking girls vying for similar positions, her story continues to support that intelligence and hard work are good goals for any true lady.

The book continues to espouse African wisdom through each of its characters in an open and friendly manner. It never feels like it's trying to preach to the reader while at the same time pointing out how things look like from an African perspective. The efforts of first world countries to help the "less fortunate" in Africa clearly aren't always the best thing for Africa, as far as the residents are concerned.

And the mysteries and their subsequent resolutions remain fulfilling on both intellectual and emotional levels, which isn't always easy to manage. The problems of Botswana are never necessarily simpler or easier than the rest of the world. but the solutions Mma Ramotswe come up with seem to be the best things indeed even if they are ultimately common sense approaches to things.

Tears of the Giraffe is a light yet compelling read that nicely rounds out any mystery novel collection. It gets 4 examples of practical African wisdom out of a possible 5.


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