This being the 12th book in the series, a large part of the charm lies in revisiting familiar characters.
The sighting of a ghost — not human but mechanical — sets in motion the various queries and mysteries waiting to be sorted out in Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. The author is in sparkling form in this latest instalment of the witty and humanistic detective endeavours of his famous protagonist, Mma Ramotswe. Fans can look forward to a cosy read, armed with a pot of tea and buttered scones or something similarly genteel that's in keeping with the mood of the book.
Though the story is self-contained, I would argue the 12th book in the series is not the ideal place for newcomers to start. Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder and director of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana, is best savoured as an ongoing chronicle; a large part of the charm lies in revisiting characters so familiar by this stage, it's like sitting down to that cuppa with old friends. Or in this particular case, for a “restorative cup of redbush tea”, the “traditionally built” Mma Ramotswe's preferred poison.
But, back to the ghost in question, with which the story opens: i.e. Mma Ramotswe's former white van that was more a treasured companion than a mechanical contraption. As McCall Smith writes, “… the owners of cars may be forgiven for thinking that under the metal there lurks something not all that different from a human soul.”
However, in the case of the cherished white van, even her kindly and clever mechanic husband, Mr. J.L.B Matekoni had declared it to be beyond repair and had consigned it to the scrap heap. Under these circumstances, Mma Ramotswe is understandably startled when confronted by a brief, mysterious sighting of the old vehicle.
It is such seemingly unlikely strands that McCall Smith weaves together: Mma Ramotswe's ghostly glimpse of her “late” white van; the upcoming big tent wedding of Mma Ramotswe's assistant Grace Makutsi to Phuti Radiphuti; the morality of the young mechanic Charlie — employed in Mr Matekoni's garage — who is rumoured to have deserted his girlfriend after getting her pregnant with twins; and the case of Mr. Moeti, a terrified local farmer whose cows are being mysteriously slain. Mma Ramotswe wonders at one stage, “why the world can be so beautiful and yet break the heart”.
Ongoing fans of the series will pick up on the continuing narrative threads and cast of long-running minor characters. This would include ‘wicked' Violet Sephotho, now surprisingly running for the Botswana Parliament; the authoritarian Mma Potokwani, who runs an orphanage; and not least, the amusing references to the hypothetical Clovis Andersen, author of Mma Ramotswe's career bible, The Principles of Private Detection.
When the detail is repetitious it can make for some tedium, but generally, we smile indulgently at the idiosyncrasies of the characters such as when Grace Makutsi's bespectacled and no-nonsense views are charmingly counter pointed by her passion for shoes. In The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, McCall Smith continues his exploration of a place for which he has the greatest affection — the place where he was born, and where he also taught law, at the University of Botswana.
Like the other books in the series, this one is experienced as a piquant throwback to that partly-imagined/partly-real time when ‘Life Seemed Simpler'.
Unlike other contemporary detective fiction, McCall Smith's stories are gentle. Evil-doing in many forms exist, from mean-spiritedness to malice and downright wickedness; but the solutions arise from an understanding of the human spirit and empathy for the human condition rather than guns and forensics.
This is both the greatest strength and weakness of the stories: that you can count on their charm, wit and gentle whimsy but that you will never be dislodged from your emotional comfort zone into unfamiliar territories.
The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, Rs. 395