The plot of The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, which makes an even dozen novels in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, revolves around a car chase. For those legions of fans letting out a discreet gasp at the very idea of the dignified Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of said detective agency and central character in the series, being involved in anything so boisterous as a car chase, let me assure you it's a very dignified car chase, one that proceeds at an appropriately stately pace. Mma Ramotswe — the "Mma" is an honorific in her native Botswana — is, as ever, a paragon of modesty and propriety as well as a shrewd student of human behavior. Her tenderhearted wisdom and wry sense of humor have made the books about her international bestsellers.
McCall Smith, who will be speaking at the Clearwater Main Library on Wednesday, is himself a native of southern Africa, born in what is now Zimbabwe to Scottish parents. He is an astonishingly prolific writer — besides the No. 1 Ladies, he has four other novel series and has written 20 children's books and a dozen textbooks. He is a professor emeritus of the University of Edinburgh's School of Law, where he taught medical law and ethics for many years, and an enthusiastic musician, the co-founder of the Really Terrible Orchestra and of the first opera training center in Botswana, the No. 1 Ladies Opera House.
But Precious Ramotswe is his best-known creation. The Botswana in which she pursues her cases is a more charming and gentle world than our own — and, probably, more than the real Botswana — and an irresistible place to visit.
The mystery Precious formally investigates in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is one of cattle mutilation. Botsalo Moeti, a corporate recruiter turned farmer, wants her to find out who has been severing the leg tendons of his cows, leaving them crippled and fit only to be killed. Cattle are a foundation of Botswanan culture, and attacking a man's cattle is tantamount to attacking him.
Precious takes the case, although she is bemused by Moeti's furtive behavior, and she soon finds out there are plenty of suspects — more than a lady detective might wish.
Precious has other things on her mind, including crimes of the heart. Gossip has it that Charlie, a carefree young apprentice at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors (owned by Precious' kindly husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni) is the father of his ex-girlfriend's twin babies, and he's not stepping up to support them. Precious is fond of Charlie but can't let that situation slide.
Even more absorbing are the long-delayed wedding preparations of Precious' assistant, Grace Makutsi. Mma Makutsi is fiercely independent and — there is no other word for it — bossy, and she is fretting over how her life will change once she weds prosperous businessman Phuti Radiphuti.
Phuti is "a man whose good manners stood out, even in a country noted for its politeness," and he dotes on her. But she has long made her own way in the world and worries about giving up her independence — a fear that is starkly highlighted by the purchase of a pair of very expensive wedding shoes.
And that car chase? It begins when Precious believes she sees a ghost — the ghost of her beloved tiny white van, a vehicle that was driven so long and hard that eventually even Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni could not revive it and it was sold for scrap.
Precious has a new blue van, but she misses the old one, even though its suspension was shot on the driver's side because "she was, by her own admission and description, a traditionally built person." So when the tiny white van keeps appearing, whisking around corners just before she can be sure she really sees it, she can't help but try to track it down.
In The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Precious' travels around Gabarone and the surrounding countryside evoke many memories of her much-loved father and her happy girlhood. Memory is a thread running throughout the book: how our memories shape us, how we choose to keep or discard or rewrite them, how they can be wrong. Precious is also preoccupied with marriage and other kinds of relationships between men and women — what makes them go awry and what makes them work.
That's not to suggest there are heavy burdens in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. Its great strength is, as in all these books, a visit with a cast of characters who seem like old and cherished friends.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.