Even though the word “detective” is in the series’ title, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books feature very little detecting. The books are less interested in hardcore mystery solving and more interested in portraying the way the people in the small city of Gaborone, Botswana, take care of each other. Smith’s Botswana is a place of gentle kindness and people with warm feelings toward each other, and while his books are low on incident, they’re high on scenes that make readers want to spend time in his fictional universe.
Unfortunately, the latest in the series, The Double Comfort Safari Club, coasts a little too heavily on the idea that we’ll love spending more time with Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, and that just hanging around with the characters will lead to enjoyable vignettes. On the other hand, it also leads to a weirdly plotless tale where everything Ramotswe needs is more or less handed to her by characters who happen into the story coincidentally. When a pivotal point in the novel involves Ramotswe deciding to ask someone to help her by checking out a customer registry, it’s hard to call the book action-packed.
Smith’s books are more cozy than exciting, and the primary reason to read this series has always been for his vivid descriptions of a Botswana that feels less like a country and more like a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. But the warmth and friendliness of the universe and characters he’s created often leave little room for actual danger or even comic menace.
The centerpiece of Double Comfort is a trip Ramotswe and Makutsi take to another part of Botswana, off into the bush to track down a man who was a safari guide to a wealthy American woman a few years ago. The scenario should be more fun than it is: It takes the duo out of their familiar area and forces Ramotswe’s penchant for aphorisms and common-sense thinking into conflict with a truly wild environment. But in spite of a little talk of hippos and crocodiles snatching the two women, the whole thing is over almost as quickly as it starts.
There are the usual humorous vignettes in Gaborone, including Mma Makutsi’s attempts to wrest her fiancé out from under the control of a mean old aunt, and Mma Ramotswe’s efforts to help two old friends patch up their marriage, but the book seems as if Smith still enjoys the characters, but no longer knows what he wants to say with them. The way they go through the motions is sad to see in a series that once had such an easygoing but vibrant voice.