The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

“It is sometimes easier to be happy if you don’t know everything.”

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Reading this book changed me, and changed my life forever.

It’s become a favourite in a way not many other books could; I love the main character, Precious Ramotswe. She seems so real to me that I’d have to remind myself (were I so inclined, which I’m generally not) that she is a fictional character. I love spending time with her, and sometimes I actually miss her like an old friend.

Alexander McCall Smith, the author of this hugely popular book and its follow-on series, is a genius. I have more respect for him than for almost any other living writer.

Being the first novel in a series (which I hope will never end in my lifetime), we are given a pleasantly meandering introductory tour of Precious’ life leading up to her starting her business. It hasn’t been an easy life, but what makes it beautiful and sweet is her, and her heart, and her perspective. And the author’s sense of humour!

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Cattle are the traditional source of prosperity in her beloved country, Botswana. And it is just this inheritance from her honoured and much-missed Daddy that allows Precious to establish herself as a business woman. That, and her ethics. She cares about people.

“There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.”

She sees things in a way that is so clear to her, and makes so much sense, that to “help people with the problems of their lives” is a perfect career for this “traditionally built woman.” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve laughed while reading about her and her many and varied exploits.

“The problem, of course, was that people did not seem to understand the difference between right and wrong. They needed to be reminded about this, because if you left it to them to work out for themselves, they would never bother. They would just find out what was best for them, and then they would call that the right thing. That’s how most people thought.”

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Gabarone, Botswana’s capital city

When the lawyer who was administering her late Daddy’s estate came to speak with her about her inheritance, she stated her intention to buy both a house and a business. He was less than enthusiastic when she announced her plan to “start from scratch” with a detective agency. He made the mistake of asking- out loud- could women even do that?

“Women are the ones who knows what’s going on,’ she said quietly . ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

Our large-and-in-charge leading lady doesn’t wait for grass to grow under her feet. She gets right on with it and is soon open for business. And sure enough, clients come walking through her door with mysteries to solve.

Some are intriguing in terms of human interest (like the case of the teenage girl with a suspected, but unapproved boyfriend, and the philandering husband who she outsmarts at the Go-Go Handsome Man’s Bar…)

Others are a little more complex (think: stolen car, and con man.) One is truly terrifying; a young boy has gone missing, and a witch doctor is the prime suspect. Mma. Ramotswe (Precious) has the courage, instinct, and wits to handle them all.

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She’s clever, and somehow her reflections on life are always refreshing even though they seem so sensible and true that they should be obvious. In spite of her important and challenging work, Precious never lets her work stresses ruin her healthy appetite.

Oh, no. She loves to eat beef, and cake, and pumpkin.

“It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.”

Haha! I wonder how she cooks her pumpkin to make it so appetizing…? She never mentions pumpkin pie, but seems to enjoy it as a savoury vegetable, which is a bit of a mystery to me… anybody else like to eat pumpkin this way? I’d love to see a good recipe…!

Have you read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful novels? 

Do you, too, know and love Precious Ramotswe?

What’s your favourite story from the books about her?

Thank you for reading with me!

Leah 🙂

p.s. I hope you enjoy this post; if you like it, please feel free to subscribe to my book blog!

 

 

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.”

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This is the book that began it all… Agatha Christie’s first ever published novel!

She wrote it during World War 1, and after being turned down (hard to believe!) by more than one publisher, it finally made its way into bookstores early in 1921. Since then, Agatha Christie became the best selling novelist of all time, outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Plenty of time for those who’d refused her to regret that decision!

In the little Essex village of Styles St Mary, we first meet Hercule Poirot… a Belgian refugee, who’d been a great police detective there before fleeing to England with countless others early in WW1. Poirot is hilariously renowned for his devotion to ‘order and method’ in criminal detection.

“Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory—let the theory go.”

He’s recruited to help solve the murder at Styles Court by Arthur Hastings, an officer in the British army who’s on leave recovering from a battle wound. Hastings is a highly likeable character (more than a little bit like ‘my dear Watson’ to the great Sherlock Holmes) He and police Inspector Japp of Scotland yard are to become regular fixtures in the many Poirot stories that followed this one….

And now, for the mystery! Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy older woman is poisoned.

Suspects include her new husband Alfred, who is decades younger than her, John and Lawrence Cavendish (Emily’s stepsons from her first marriage), Mary (John’s wife), as well as the victim’s’s paid companion, Evelyn Howard, and a family friend, Cynthia Murdoch; all of whom were living at Styles at the time of the crime.

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Alfred is suspicious for more than just the obvious reason of his sudden marriage to such a rich woman so much older than himself. He’s not very popular with John and Lawrence, who naturally wish their own father’s fortune to have been left more to them than in the power of their stepmother and her new husband! Mary seems to be (understandably) resentful of their financially dependent position, and Cynthia is working at a WW1 medical dispensary, so she has access to poisons! Even Evelyn Howard, who is generally  considered a good sport, but who is clearly not impressed with her employer’s second husband, isn’t above suspicion.

“They tried to be too clever—and that was their undoing.”

Of course you can be sure of satisfaction among the twists and turns of this clever plot, and if you haven’t read Agatha Christie before, there’s no better place to start than here- at the beginning!

I’m not a fan of gruesome or graphic crime stories, but these ones are classy. The writing is all about the brilliant detective using logic and awareness of human nature to solve mysteries. Plus, it’s fascinating to go back to this old time and far-off place and hear how people thought and spoke. I can never get enough!

Do you like reading mystery/detective novels?

Which are your favourites, and why?

Thank you for reading with me, 

Leah 🙂

p.s. I hope you enjoyed my post today… If so, please leave me a comment, follow my blog, and and feel free to share it with someone else who might like it, too!!

 

Footsteps in the Dark

“It was growing late, and though one might stand on the brink of a deep chasm of disaster, one was still obliged to dress for dinner.”

~ Georgette Heyer

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Delicious. This really hit the spot.

Interwar England is one of my favourite settings to read in, and Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite reasons for this! Published in 1932, Footsteps in the Dark is the first of the many mystery novels written by this prolific author. I enjoyed it so much that I went straight on to her next mystery, and don’t plan to stop until I’ve read them all.

(Or until I run out of access on my library app for the month. That happened fast.)

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Georgette Heyer

I could compare it to Agatha Christie’s detective stories; only somehow a little lighter in tone, and a little more emphasis on the action as it happens than on the brilliant mind solving the crime. I like how Georgette Heyer always seems to write one character who is terribly clever in that very dry English way; it lightens the mood of the book and really takes the edge off the tension created by creepy mysteries unfolding among such prosaic and unsuspecting snobs.

The old-fashioned thriller woven through with social comedy is a perfect combination, like eating sour candy.

When the story begins, Celia Malcolm and her siblings (Peter and Margaret Fortescue) have just inherited a charming old country house.  Against the advice of Celia’s husband Charles, they decide to keep it as a summer residence. ‘The Priory’ has barely been maintained since the tenants were haunted away a few years ago by the resident ghost (a ‘monk’.) There’s no telephone or even any electricity installed, but they (with their elderly aunt, Mrs. Bosanquet) cheerfully drive up the long lane through the forebodingly dark woods to the house for a season of rustic, if genteel rest and relaxation…

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Charles and Peter’s idea of a good vacation involves a bit of fishing, so they take full advantage of the estate’s trout stream, and on their way home one day they happen to spy a couple of men who are acting and talking rather suspiciously. One of them is the mysterious stranger who helped Margaret out when she had car trouble the day before, and the other is the shifty character they’d recently spotted eavesdropping on their conversation with the innkeeper in the local pub. Hmm.

There aren’t many neighbours of sufficient social standing to get together with for dinners and card parties, but the Fortescues do enjoy some such visits with the local gentry; enter Colonel Ackerly (a retired military officer who plays a mean game of lawn tennis), and the eccentric Mr. Titmarsh (a devoted and enthusiastic collector of rare moths), as well as Dr. and Mrs. Roote (the tipsy village doctor and his long-suffering wife)…

There are a few other locals who show up in this old-school cast, but the last one I’ll mention is Monsieur Duval. He’s an appallingly rude, drug addicted artist who lives in a secluded cottage near The Priory. His egotism is matched only by everyone else’s utter distaste for his company (and his art.)

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If you’re in the mood for secret moving panels, winding passages, skeletons, and terrifying noises in the night, barely laced with a little touch of romance, this vintage thriller might be the book for you.

While this novel is not to be taken at all seriously, it’s brilliant as lightly thrilling escape literature! Of course, reading novels set long ago and far away is one thing, but I find that when I read ones that were actually written in other periods I have to overlook some very out-dated attitudes in order to enjoy the story for what it is. This is fine with me; I’m not a fan of revisionist history and the flavour is more authentic than anything a modern author could dream up.

Do you prefer to read stories set in modern times, or take in a little time travel on your way through a book?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

 

 

Pemberley Shades

“Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”

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Ooh. Aah. This is a vintage sequel, the second Pride and Prejudice spin-off ever published… It came out in 1949!

(Incidentally, the first ever sequel to Pride and Prejudice, the most famous- of Jane Austen‘s novels, was published in 1915, entitled Old Friends and New Fancies.)

Back to our feature presentation: Pemberley Shades.

What a delightful book. The language feels quite authentic and the story is imagined really well, which is believable since its author was a clergyman’s daughter who grew up (with a governess) in Victorian England, and lived out her days as a single woman living with her family- as had Jane Austen herself.

~I’m excited to share with you an excellent blog post I discovered about the story of this story, especially it’s recent republication!

Pemberley Shades: The Legend of the Lost Sequel

On to the story itself…

Things are not always what they seem. Least of all, people.

This photo of the Derbyshire countryside (where our story takes place), seen through the mist, really captures our novel’s tone; trying to get a clear view through a screen of lies…

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Photo by Ali Gooya on Unsplash

So, we begin just a few years after the end of Pride and Prejudice… at Pemberley (the famous Darcy family estate) with Elizabeth and Darcy; happily married parents of young Richard (their cute, but somewhat spoiled son and heir.) Darcy’s musically talented younger sister, Georgiana, is still single and so living at home with the happy couple.

As their local rector has recently passed away, Darcy is on task to fulfil his responsibility of choosing and providing a new one to preach and minister to his tenants. He’s determined to avoid having the unbearable Mr. Collins foisted upon them all by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has a hate on for her former favourite.

In the meantime his friendly neighbour Robert Mortimer of Clopwell Priory has been kindly filling in at the pulpit. But alas, in spending so much time at Pemberley, he finds himself infatuated with Georgiana. Which is sad for him, as she does not return his sentiments.

In the nick of time, Darcy receives a recommendation for a clergyman who sounds like just the ticket. Enter Mr. Stephen Acworth. And this is where the plot thickens.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I’ll now become a little vague (to match the thickening plot.)

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English manor house, site for the BBC’s filming of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

We are treated to a  letter from Mr. Collins, and extended visits by several amusing characters from the original cast; including Lady Catherine De Bourgh and her poor daughter Anne (who seems to have had enough of her domineering mother), the hopelessly good-natured Jane with her beloved Bingley and their children, as well as Elizabeth’s somewhat reformed younger sister Kitty, their mildly eccentric father, and the all-around wonderful Aunt Gardiner.

“Sound principles are not always found in conjunction with a sweet temper, a superior understanding and elegant manners, but Mrs Gardiner possessed all these attributes and more besides.”

The ‘lightly gothic’ tension in the plot of Pemberley Shades reminds me of Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen’s slightly spoofy Gothic drama.)

So whet your lips for some thrillingly awkward, even frightening scenes deep in the shady woodlands, some shockingly improper behaviour by those who should know better, and some downright satisfying (if surprising) romantic entanglements!

I’m sure any fans of Jane Austen (and her entourage of follow-on novels) will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Which other Austen-esque ‘sequels’ or ‘alternate endings’ have you read, and which would you recommend?

Thank you for reading with me,

Leah 🙂

 

 

 

The Department Of Sensitive Crimes

“Sometimes we stumble over the truth. We think we find it, but it finds us.”

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Have you heard of ‘Scandi-noir“? (a.k.a. “Nordic-noir”)

I had, but only vaguely. In case you’re as innocent of this relatively new, darkly disturbing crime fiction as I was until recently, it’s meant to be a bit of a cultural expose uncovering creepy elements of society purportedly lurking beneath the calm surface of life in northern European countries.

You may recall a recent post I wrote about  Lagom (the Swedish concept of balance and harmony)… Well, in the words of Alan Bradley, here’s what we’re now encountering:

“With astounding heart and mind, Alexander McCall Smith launches a bold and original new series. With The Department of Sensitive Crimes, he invents a new and compassionate genre: Scandi Blanc…”

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Photo by John Flygare on Unsplash

Ulf Varg is a detective who lives and works in Malmo, Sweden. From an inconspicuous office, he leads a small team in solving crimes which are beyond the scope (or beneath the notice) of the regular police force, while stoically enduring the occasional joke about his names, which both translate as ‘wolf.’

In classic Alexander McCall Smith style, we are invited into the personal as well as the professional life of our protagonist…

We learn the sad history of his failed marriage and meet his therapist; “Dr. Svensson had once counselled him to think of the things you’re doing rather than the things you did. It was useful advice- he knew that- even if the therapist liked to claim he was not dispensing advice, but helping him to work out what was the best thing to do. That was the trouble with Dr. Svensson, thought Ulf: he often denied that he was there- an odd thing to do, especially when you charged so much for being present.”

We also get to know Ulf’s deaf labradoodle (Martin) and Mrs. Hogfors, the retired neighbour who cares for him while while Ulf’s at work… “Martin loved Mrs. Hogfors, and she adored him in return, allowing him to sleep on her sofa, feeding him a constant diet of fattening treats, and refusing to countenance any talk of faults on his part.”

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Photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash

Ulf’s co-workers are endearingly human and amusingly Swedish. But don’t expect to find nothing more than a lot of crime detection and platonic social interactions. Ulf is in love, and it’s heart-rending to delve a bit into the two sides of that ill-fated relationship…

I highly recommend this mentally and emotionally provocative novel to anyone who enjoys life. It’s not heavy, but with the light touch he’s famous for, this brilliant author hits another home run.

Have you read other books/ series by Alexander McCall Smith?

What do you think of this new series?

Thank you for reading with me!

Leah  🙂

 

 

 

 

The Colours of All the Cattle

“Life happens, she thought; whatever we do, life just happens.”
― Alexander McCall Smith, The Colours of all the Cattle

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And… he’s done it again! One of my favourite living authors, Alexander McCall Smith has conjured up yet another Precious Ramotswe story. I’m delighted every time a new novel in this series comes out, and I’ve never been even remotely close to disappointment after reading one. How does he do it? I wonder… How does a man in Scotland write so convincingly about a woman in Botswana!? Am I the only one who has to tell myself (time and again) that if I were to take a trip to Gabarone, I would be faced with the cruel reality that no such business exists as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency?

This morning I was reading in Carol Shields’ Startle and Illuminate, a book on writing. I came across this comment, which is absolutely true of this series:

“… radical regionalism often produces a universal response.”

I’ve always wanted to travel to Africa, ever since I first saw the sunrise in Disney’s Lion King as an idealistic 16 year-old. Still, I am not the only one for whom McCall Smith has put Botswana on the map. Apart from that, it’s delicious to feel so immersed in a far-off place; the culture is palpable in these lovely books.

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Gabarone, beloved (if fictional) home of beloved (if fictional) Mma Ramotswe

Now consider another piece of Carol Shields’ advice, this one on appropriation of voice; we must be sure to convey others’ experiences with authenticity and respect.

This, I am convinced, is the key to Alexander McCall Smith’s brilliantly successful star character, Precious Ramotswe.

Charming as these novels are, the reason I keep coming back for more is not just for the  light humour, the little mysteries, or the trip to exotic Africa; but because what’s written in them matters. It simply does. The kind of ethics that just make good sense, which are woven like a golden thread throughout, catching the light occasionally, but never detracting attention from the people and their stories. That’s the magnet for me.

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If Precious were a tree, she would be this one.

“But please be careful—and never, never think that you are justified in doing something wrong just because you are trying to do something right.”

Spoken with her unfailing kindness, and accompanied by generous action, who could resist such wise counsel?

Which books do you return to for renewed perspective?

Thank you for reading with me 🙂

 Leah 🙂