Published in the Chapel Hill Herald, January 31, 2015
I have listened to all Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective books, including the newest, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café (Recorded Books, 9.75 hours). This is his 15th about Precious Ramotswe, the “standardly built” lady detective from Botswana. I count on the audios’ consistencies and never tire of the samenesses. This one, however, surprised me.
McCall Smith’s tales are far more about texture and tone than their mild mysteries. This one begins when the kindly Mr. Sengupta and his sister ask for help determining the truth about a woman with amnesia whom they have taken in.
Once again, I was entranced by the theatrical reading by Lisette LaCat who has narrated all the stories. She portrays the many characters so vividly and distinctively that I know them as they appear and welcome their returns like a reunion of old friends.
Every book is colored by Mma Ramotswe’s cheer. She is quick to remember the wisdom of her treasured “late” father and is forgiving and generous. Through her, Smith can condemn falling mores without being moralistic. Mma Ramotswe’s compassion is often ignited by her personal experiences. In the Sengupta mystery, Mma Ramotswe learns that the woman who can’t remember her past, can but would prefer not to. She has come to the Senguptas for asylum from an abusive situation. Her situation causes Mma’s memories to stir. Her understanding and kindly actions follow .
The underdog theme is common in the series and there are several characters in this book who face economic fears. To keep his auto repair shop afloat, Mma Ramotswe’s husband must fire Charlie, his thoughtless lazy assistant. Avid fans will see Charlie in a new light and understand why Mma Ramotswe hires him as a detective, even though she, like us, suspects his failure is almost certain.
Anyone familiar with the characters knows that Charlie has an explosive history with Grace Makutsi, Precious Ramotswe’s partner. Readers have come to love Grace despite her judgments and the inept conclusions she makes both emotionally and in sleuthing. In past stories, Grace has provided humor, but I felt differently about her in this book. She, who has come from poor beginnings, hasn’t an ounce of compassion. Grace has risen in the detective agency, married a wealthy man, and is about to open a restaurant of her own. She has always been a bit vainglorious, but I found her pride almost unbearable and found myself wishing for her comeuppance.
Luckily, Grace’s pride precipitates a fall that family, friends and readers can see coming. Despite gentle warnings from her husband, she christens her restaurant, The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, a name that smacks of exclusivity. Then, she heedlessly hires a dubious chef with bizarre menu offerings and heads recklessly towards other train wrecks.
Thankfully, as per usual, all works out in the end which arrives complete with “therapeutic fruitcake,” quantities of red bush tea, and a rather deus ex machina rescue for Grace that deflated my distaste and has me eager for the next installment.