It is not unusual to draw comparisons when reviewing books. It is expected. It is a means of allowing readers, potential and otherwise, to colour in their horizons. It gives them a means by which to weigh a book, place it in a framework that might be familiar, allow it to enter our vocabulary, a soft point through which we can enter and so devour its richness. Yet such comparisons are limited, and delimited, by the reviewers own prejudices, literary experiences and expectations.
The success McCall Smith has achieved in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency with the character of Mma Ramotswe has been compared with other great detectives of English literature, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, the creations of Agatha Christie. Such a comparison is only warranted because of the success of the respective characters in the real world of book sales and has little to do with the fictional worlds the respective characters inhabit. This has nothing to do with the location of the detectives, Botswana and England respectively, but with the nature of their work and their manner of detection.
“Like Winnie-the-Pooh, Mma Ramotswe stumbles upon adventures and solves them with equal measures of luck, homely advice and help from friends”
Agatha Chrisitie was not shy of having the victims in her books dying in macabre and imaginative ways whereas death seldom, if ever, sullies the pages of McCall Smith’s books: except of course for the many characters whose friends and relatives are late due to natural causes. So if the great English fictional detectives are not a suitable comparison for the traditionally built Motswana, who is? Any comparison with other detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Morse, will suffer from the same lack of substance. There are no bodies, no violence, no intricate mysteries, no obscure puzzles which Mma Ramotswe must tackle.
As is written elsewhere on this site, Mma Ramotswe’s success owes more to her skills as agony aunt than as private detective [click here to read]. It is with this in mind that one must look elsewhere in English literature of the 20th century to find a more suitable comparison for Mma Ramotswe. The ideal comparison, which helps to explain Mma Ramotswe’s place at the top of the best-seller lists in the UK and USA, comes not from the world of detective fiction but from the world of children’s literature.
Winnie-the-Pooh is a global success in print and film, thanks to the Walt Disney transformation of the AA Milne characters from print to the animated screen. Yet Winnie’s longevity, since it was first published in 1926, is due not just to the marketing expertise of the US media empire. As much as children love hearing the stories of the bear and his coterie of forest friends, adults love reading them to their children. Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Owl, Roo, Kanga, Rabbit and Christopher Robin offer a perspective on life that is marvellous for its simplicity, its innocence, its humour and uncomplicated resolution of life’s pitfalls.
Like Pooh, Mma Ramotswe stumbles upon adventures and solves them with equal measures of luck, homely advice and help from friends. Consider Pooh setting off on an ‘expotition’ to discover the North Pole or his quest with Piglet to catch a heffalump in a big pit with a pot of honey. Pooh does not so much seek out challenges as much as stumble across them in the course of not doing anything in particular, apart from searching for honey. Similarly Mma Ramotswe’s greatest challenges in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, as in the other books, come from co-incidences, which turn into matters of importance and must be addressed; such as the pumpkin which is anonymously placed at Mma Ramotswe’s front door, or the apprentice Charlie’s decision to give up work after finding a rich older woman to look after him. The matter of real detective work, an errant Zambian businessman, flitters around the edges of the story, much as the real world flitters around the edge of the 100 Acre Wood.
There are also more immediate, albeit facile, similarities: where Mma Ramotswe drinks copious amounts of bush tea whenever she needs to think or relax or just because it tastes good, so too Pooh consumes copious amounts of honey. When Mma Ramotswe encounters a problem for which there is no immediate solution she turns to Clovis Anderson, while Pooh turns to his mentor Christopher Robin.
At a more philosophical level, where Pooh considers the puzzles of the universe, as in the poem Cottlestone Pie, Mma Ramotswe also puzzles over the nature of the unknowable. Take this example:
Cattle liked to stand on the roadside at night and would suddenly step out into the paths of oncoming cars, almost as if they were curious to find out what lay behind the headlights. Perhaps they thought that the headlights were torches, held by their owners, and came out to see if they brought food; perhaps they were looking for warmth and thought the lights were the sun. Perhaps they thought nothing in particular, which was always possible with cattle, and with some people too, for that matter.
Pooh would be proud of such logic and such prose, as he would be of Mma Ramotswe’s approach to those tasks in life which require brain power and physical effort, so:
She did not touch it at first, but peered at the pumpkin itself, and then at the ground around it. The pumpkin had been place in what was nominally a flower bed, but which had not been cultivated very much since Mma Ramotswe had moved into the house. She devoted herself to vegetables and shrubs, holding the view that flowers required too much effort and gave too little reward.
This exercise of comparing Winnie-the-Pooh to Mma Ramotswe even has playful potential. If Mma Ramotswe is Winnie, then who is Eeyore? Mr JLB Matekoni? And who would fill the role of Owl? Well, Mma Makutsi is proud of her 97 per cent at the Botswana Secretarial College. Or should she be the over zealous and officious Rabbit? And what about the two apprentices? Well they seem as effective and balanced as Tigger.
But on a more serious note. Winnie-the-Pooh is a reminder of a lost rural idyll, of an age of innocence, a time long ago, a land far away, where friends helped each other and kindness and common sense held sway, where problems were solved with a little help from our friends, where we could rely on things like love in the home and the eternal goodness of human nature. Mma Ramotswe lives in a similar world where trust, kindness and faith ensure that life’s problems are solved. She has a love of the land, of her home, that harks back to a pre-industrial age. She recalls a rural environment, a simple lifestyle where the complexities of modern life, do not impinge. She is loved as a detective because she makes us feel good about life, not because she solves crimes, just as Winnie would fail to be employed as a detective.
But she teaches us about Botswana, I hear you say. Perhaps she does, but just as you wouldn’t read Winnie-the-Pooh to learn about life in rural England, so too do not read In the Company of Cheerful Ladies to learn about Botswana. Read it simply because it brings a smile to your face and warmth to the heart. Just like a certain bear.