As the 13th book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is one of the stronger contenders for Best in Series. But it might not be your cup of rooibos.
Is it a mystery? Well, in a way. Is it a thriller? No, not really.
Even if you don’t know the series, you’ve probably figured out by now that it takes place in Botswana. There are three hints above in this post. Like me, you probably don’t know a whole lot about Botswana, other than the fact that it abuts South Africa and is a former British colony. You’ll learn a lot about the people and the culture from this series of novels, but do remember that they are novels, not histories or travelogues. The culture emerges from the settings and from the vivid characters. While I always think it’s best to start a series from the beginning, you can actually read The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection as a stand-alone novel and it will pretty much make sense on its own. Some readers get annoyed by information repeated from earlier volumes, but what else can an author do if reading from the beginning isn’t to be required? Characters progress from book to book, they grow physically and morally, the world moves on…so you need a way to catch up. Even after reading the preceding works in the series, I was never bothered by the snippets of repetitiveness. Your mileage may vary.
These books are all slow-paced, calm, and positive — just like Botswana itself. No violence here, no cynicism. But I love them for what they are. I care about the continuing characters and their relationships. I want to know what happens. I find the novels engaging and amusing. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection has more humor than any of the others, so it might be a good place to start if you’re not going to begin at the beginning.
It is standard in many mysteries for bad things to happen to good people. So it is in McCall Smith’s books as well, but he makes sure that all gets resolved in the end. These are good novels for optimists, not so good if you’re looking for, say, Scandinavian gloom.
A couple of interesting twists in the story held special interest for me as a math teacher. First, there are some pointed observations about changes in math teaching, which apparently have affected Botswana just as they have affected the U.S.:
He was not at all sure if schools taught mental arithmetic any more. “Take Charlie,” he said, referring to the older of his two apprentices. “If you ask him to do some simple calculation — such as what the capacity of a fuel tank might be if take a bit of it off — he looks blank and reaches for his pocket calculator. We can do these things in our head, can’t we, Mma?”
…The general point that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was making certainly stood: there were some things that just had to be learned through effort, and she was not sure how popular effort currently was. “It’s all different, Rra,” she said. “The world is all different. But people like Charlie can do other things, you know. These people who cannot add can do other things very well.”
And then we learn about respect for teachers:
When she had been a pupil at the government school in Machudi, the teacher had been a figure of authority in the village. People respected teachers and listened to what they had to say. She remembered walking with her late father, who…raised his hat as [a certain] man passed. She asked why he had done this, and he had replied that the man was a teacher and he would always raise his hat to a teacher. She did not think that happened today.