Apr 5, 2011

[Books] The Kalahari Typing School For Men (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 4)

The Kalahari Typing School For Men (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 4)I can't imagine how writers manage to conceptualize the continuing development of an on-going book series. I can sort of get the trilogy concept - that just requires a pretty big story concept, the discipline to break it down into three main segments or major story arcs then you just work on filling in the gaps in-between to come up with the details. But at least a trilogy has a clear start, beginning and end and that helps things along most certainly.

For a continuing series, how far should you map out your plans? Do you bank on your books to continue to do well in the market or should you not care about that and just write? Do you start to factor in fan feedback or do you feel you should only consult with colleagues in the field? Does character growth have to involve dramatic changes or events in their fictional lives or should you just take a day-to-day approach, as if you were live-blogging the life of your creations? There are just so many questions like these that come in my head when I write lengthy stories, which is probably why I have such a hard time trying to finish.

In that regard, this is one of the many reasons I've fallen in love with Alexander McCall Smith's books. He's manage to combine the appeal of the serial mystery (to some extent) while still managing the continuing development of the personal stories of his characters. And with this fourth book, he continues to deliver in many ways.

Alexander Mccall Smith signing books in Helsin...Image via WikipediaThe Kalahari Typing School for Men is the fourth book in Alexander McCall Smith's bestselling book series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. For the unfamiliar, the books follow a small detective agency set in Goborone, Botswana in Africa.

This book starts with a startling twist for our lady detectives - competition! A rival detective agency has opened up called the Satisfaction Guaranteed Agency run by one Cephas Buthelezi, who claims to be "Ex-CID, Ex-New York, Ex-cellent!" And not only does he claim to have more valid credentials to become a detective than Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, but he also stresses how much better a man is at this kind of work - something infuriates our lady detectives.

On the personal front, there are a number of developments as well. First, their adopted son Motheleli surprised Mma Makutsi and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni when he talks back to them and goes as far as saying that he hates them. And as Mma Ramotswe worries about Mma Makutsi's continued single social status, she on the other hand comes up with a new business idea to augment her income - a typing school for men!

When is a mystery novel not quite a mystery novel? When character development takes the lead! When you think about it, investing so much in a topic other than the usual fare of quirky cases might have been a bit of a risk for Smith. However the results were far better than I expected and I'm glad that he spent time in this book making sure the various players in the growing "cast" of this book series got some development time instead of leaving them as so much background noise. Besides, all the little twists and turns of their individual lives did prove interesting.

To be fair, there were still two cases to address in the course of the book. It's just that I felt they didn't necessarily take center stage, which definitely wasn't a bad thing. The primary case about the man who wanted to make amends with his former foster family of sorts was a good one but for the most part if felt like background to the rest of the action. And the second case really hit close to home and I was rather delighted with how Mma Ramotswe managed to resolved that particular manner most effectively. Sure, it sort of resulted with most people returning to status quo, but at least it was a generally believable transition.

I did appreciate how much focus was given to Mma Makutsi and her way of thinking. Her rather direct, practical and highly logical mind was an interesting one to follow along and one that did lend itself very well to business. And yet at the same time, the full story behind her sick brother and the rest of her family remained artfully just out of reach. So we got to learn more about her but the bigger stuff remained somewhat vaguely just out of reach.

This is not to say we didn't learn more about our favorite head lady detective. We certainly got to appreciate her continued efforts to handle her husband-to-be, her views on how to best support the personal growth of Mma Makutsi and how she met the challenge of the rival detective agency. Plus Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is back in circulation so that whole dreary plot thread about him being depressed seems to be moving towards resolution - but I'm sure it'll have to pop up one more time before things are through.

And the book had the bonus of trying to give more character to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two apprentices at the garage. Nothing too impressive, but just enough to make them more substantial and thus ultimately more real.

On the whole, The Kalahari Typing School for Men was rather light on the mystery element compared to previous books, but was still fulfilling and a most enjoyable read. It gets 4.5 quirky typewriters with randomly non-functional letters out of a possible 5.
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