Mar 27, 2012

[Books] In The Company of Cheerful Ladies (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Book 6)

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of books have become the sort of light, comfortable reading that's nice to return to at the end of a busy day. As much as these books are about detectives, the cases tend to require more common sense that formal forensic reasoning. Thus the stories do maintain a nicely feminine feel to them somehow and yet they're penned by a man. Go figure.

However these are practically just serial novels - quite indulgences that start out okay, move right along through the cases featured in the particular book and then move on. And while the characters do evolve over time with events like marriages and deaths in the family, these changes tend to not have too much effect on the narrative flow as a whole. There is definitely continuity across the titles, yes, but at times one can't help but feel that we're not seeing parts of the narrative that we may be expecting should naturally follow.  Or there are those moment when the characters just seem to tell us what's going on and what they're going to do next instead of investing in the pages for us to see how it all unfolds.

But these books do try to maintain a lighter town through a sense of brevity, so I suppose you just need to play along for now.

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies is the sixth title in the highly successful No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of mystery novels. They're all written by Alexander McCall Smith, who also writes a number of other mystery novel lines.

A ballroom dancing couple. Illustration by Dav...
Illustration by David Göthberg & Co, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The book begins with Charlie, one of the apprentices at Mr. J.L.B Matekoni's car garage, being seen spending time with some rich older woman by Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, the titular lady detectives. What's worse is that the woman is married and the two ladies are not immediately certain as to how they should proceed in handling the matter. Outside of work though, Mma Makutsi decides to take up ballroom dancing classes where she meets the stuttering Phuti Radiphuti who becomes her dance partner - much to her dismay.

As for Mma Ramotswe herself, things seem to take a turn for the worse when her ex-husband Note Mokote appears in town and eventually tries to ask her for money. And as much as she wants nothing to do with the man, he reminds her of the fact that they never actually got legally divorced, thus bringing her current marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni into question.

This book felt a little weird to me compared to all the others, probably because we didn't exactly have a central mystery to deal with. The agency itself seems to be getting very boring work otherwise I can't think of another reason for Smith to opt not to focus too much on their actual work. Instead we end up following the various characters around in a book that almost feels like filler material.

To be fair, it's not like I didn't enjoy following Mma Makutsi a bit more in terms of her endeavors as a character. The whole dance school story arc, while a tad corny, was still an interesting way to develop her further, even with the surprise announcement towards the end. Sorry, it was hard to appreciate it as just being a special event since it seemed to lack some of the expected build-up, but maybe I'm expecting too much from such a short novel.

I was especially disappointed by the whole Note Mokote story arc given how much he has been alluded to in past books contrasted against his last luster depiction in this book. Here, we are told he is scary and that he scares Mma Ramotswe still. But at the same time we never really experience why he is such a fearsome figure - we keep getting dialog discussing instead of narratives showing us the extreme nature of his behavior I suppose.

In the end the book wraps up all the plot threads as normal, but the final tapestry formed isn't at all fun or elegant. And that's a significant disappointment. especially how other stories felt a lot more cohesive presented an actual challenge in terms of the mysteries to solve. This time the only mysteries I enjoyed were the ones that did not seem to have a ready solution like the one involving the mysterious pumpkin. Plus the book also added a new character to this central cast in the form of Mr. Polopetsi, who goes from bike accident survivor to the latest member of the joint business of the garage and the detective agency.

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies is a decent enough addition to the stories of the lady detectives, but definitely one that could have been prettier or more logical had Smith remembered to add more mystery instead of more silly drama. Thus it only rates 2.5 internal discussions involving Mma Makutsi's shoes

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