Legend has it that when author Alexander McCall Smith saw a “traditionally built” woman in Botswana tending to the chickens in her yard, he decided to create a series of books centered on her life.
Since its 1998 debut, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” and its main character, the traditionally built Precious Ramotswe, have become one of the most successful franchises in fiction, and Mma (the Botswana version of Miss, Ms. or Mrs.) Ramotswe has developed a loyal following. Tourists now flock to Botswana to explore the country and to enjoy a cup of red bush tea, Mma Ramotswe’s favorite beverage.
While Mma Ramotswe operates a business intent on solving thorny issues for her clients, the cases are secondary to the close personal relationships of the characters and their gentle customs, which are built on mutual respect and an underlying kindness of the heart.
In the 10th book in the series, due to hit shelves next Tuesday, Mma Ramotswe’s business is thriving, but her 20-year-old van is on its last legs. She knows her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, will say it’s time for her to give up on the vehicle. However, Mma Ramotswe has an affinity for the van she inherited from her late father, the highly respected cattleman Obed Ramotswe.
The agency’s scrappy secretary, Grace Makutsi, who never passes up an opportunity to let it be known that she scored a 97 percent on her final exams at Botswana Secretarial College, is dealing with personal issues, too.
It seems that Violet Sephoto, Mma Makutsi’s rival at the college, has landed a job at the Double Comfort Furniture Store, which is owned by Mma Makutsi’s fiancé, Phuti Radiphuti. Sephoto, with her short skirts and loose morals, poses a serious threat to Mma Makutsi’s domestic future, especially when Sephoto becomes the furniture store’s top salesperson.
In addition to pressing personal problems, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have a full plate at work.
The Kalahari Swoopers, one of Garborone’s soccer teams, is on a losing streak and their owner, Leungo Molofololo, suspects one of his players may be throwing the matches. He hires the agency to find the culprit. Neither Mma Ramotswe nor Mma Makutsi know a midfieldman from a goalie, but that doesn’t deter them in their mission to ferret out the team’s traitor.
There is also the case of the woman with too many husbands, which presents the agency with a prickly decision.
As with all books in the series, the professional and personal conflicts are resolved by the end of the story, but that’s not the main reason to read the charmers. The real pleasure in Smith’s books lies in spending time with his special characters.
Smith’s stories have now come to the small screen in the form of a heart-warming HBO series. The late director Sidney Pollack (“Out of Africa”) and late filmmaker Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) were involved in the pilot and their ability to capture the physical essence of a location is evident in the opening shots. Never has dry and dusty looked so lush and lovely.
Although it took a long time to cast the role of Mma Ramotswe, the wait was worth it. Jazz singer Jill Scott, a traditionally built woman herself, has slipped seamlessly into the main role. Aniki Noni Rose as the tightly wound Makutsi is a treasure, quirky tics and all.
Lucian Msamati, the actor who plays J.L.B. Matekoni, is one of the few main characters who is actually from Africa, and he brings great dignity to the role.
I have a few issues with the HBO: Mma Ramotswe drives a truck instead of her beloved white van. However, in last night’s episode she referred to the truck as her van, so maybe calling a truck a van is customary in Botswana.
Mma Ramotswe’s office is not attached to the Speedy Motors garage, as it is in the books, so we miss seeing the relationship between Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B. Matekoni develop during daily contact.
There’s a new character who’s obviously supposed to provide comic relief, but has done little so far.
The detractions are not disruptive – they’re just a little irritating if you have read the books.
This is not a series you can watch while working at the computer or cooking dinner. Because the actors’ accents are so thick, it takes some concentration to find a rhythm in the dialogue, but stick with it – the reward is a satisfying, well-written series with characters you can admire.
Quality television is rare. Hopefully, this sweet series will pick up an audience and HBO will renew it next season.
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built - By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Press. $17.95. 244 pp.
HBO – Sunday 7 p.m.
(with replays during the week)
Five out of five stars
Morality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
The Full Cupboard of Life (2004)
In The Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004)
Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
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