The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe

Today the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme breaks its journey for the eighteenth time. We’ve arrived at the R Resort and we’re preparing for a lovely time. Thanks as ever to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the memorable trip thus far. I for one am really enjoying the journey – even if there do seem to be a lot of dead bodies turning up along the way. 😉   I’m about to go to the spa for a bit and unwind from the travel but before I do let me share my contribution for this stop – Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe.

Mma. Ramotswe is a private detective with her own agency – the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana. And one of the most appealing things about Mma. Ramotswe is that she is content to be where she is doing what she does. She is proud to be from Botswana and in many places in the series she makes it clear that she’s glad to live in Africa and especially in Botswana. For instance in Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an ex-pat American who is looking for closure after the loss of her son Michael. Ten years earlier, Michael Curtin joined an eco-commune from whence he disappeared. The official explanation was that he’d been attacked by wild animals but his mother wants to know the truth. Here is Mma. Ramotswe’s first impression of Andrea Curtin:


“The skin of her hands was mottled, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the way that white people’s hands were if they were exposed to too much sun. Perhaps she was an American who had lived for many years in Africa; there were many of these people. They grew to love Africa and they stayed, sometimes until they died. Mma. Ramotswe could understand why they did this. She could not imagine why anybody would want to live anywhere else.”


When she hears the story of Michael Curtin’s disappearance, Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the case and she travels to the commune where he lived. In the end she finds out what really happened to him and is able to offer closure to his mother.

This case shows another of Mma. Ramotswe’s appealing qualities: her compassion. She became a detective to help people solve their problems and that goal continues to motivate her even after her agency gets an established reputation. She’s by no means a patsy but she has a warm and sympathetic personality that encourages people to confide in her. And what’s most appealing is that it’s not a front. She really does care about the people whose cases she takes and sometimes she even feels compassion for people who turn out to be guilty of things.

Part of the reason for that compassion is that Mma. Ramotswe has had her share of sadness in her life. She lost her beloved father and still feels that loss. She had a disastrous first marriage to an abusive husband too, and although she managed to escape that marriage, it left its scars. But Mma. Ramotswe hasn’t let her sorrows stop her from enjoying her life. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity and that’s quite refreshing.

Precious Ramotswe has a strong sense of ethics and that too makes her appealing. She believes strongly in doing the right thing and reserves her greatest contempt for those who are selfish and willfully hurt others. Sometimes, for instance, she’s been known to tell “little white lies” in order to solve cases. She also sees a place for that kind of lie if the result is that one avoids hurting others. But deliberate lies are a different thing. Here, from The Double Comfort Safari Club, is how Mma. Ramotswe puts it:


“Mma. Ramotswe did not believe in lying, but she did believe that there were occasions when one had to say things that were not completely true. We all do that, she thought…we all have to say things that are not strictly true in order to protect others from hurt.”


To Mma. Ramotswe, the greatest good comes when we help others and avoid hurting them and there’s something very appealing about that.

Mma. Ramotswe may be warm and compassionate but she has personal strength too. She goes up against implacable bureaucrats, self-important government officials and wealthy, influential “pillars of the community” without backing down. What’s appealing about this is her approach to these people. She always starts by assuming that they want to do the right thing and quite often that approach works. When it doesn’t she’s not afraid to tell them what she thinks, even though she’s not one for profanity. Sometimes she even uses a little subterfuge when nothing else works. For instance, in The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Ramotswe is trying to help her client Mr. Molefelo locate his former landlady Mma. Tsolamosese. Long ago Mr. Molefelo took a radio from the family and now he wants to make things right. Since Mma. Tsolamosese is the widow of a government employee, Mma. Ramotswe hits on the idea of finding her through the government pension office. The clerk responsible for those files refuses to give her any information, claiming that the rules forbid it. Here is what happens next (I admit, too; this is one of my personal favourite scenes from this series):


“‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’”


Mma. Ramotswe takes the clever approach of using the clerk’s own rules against him and gets the information she needs. That ability to think quickly and use her wits also adds to Mma. Ramotswe’s appeal.

Another appealing aspect of Mma. Ramotswe’s character is that she is comfortable with herself. She’s what is called a traditionally-built lady. But except for one occasion she doesn’t fret too much about not being a sylph. She’s got her own grace and dignity and part of that comes from her sense of contentment with who she is as a person. That said though, it’s also worth noting that Mma. Ramotswe grows as the series evolves and becomes more confident as a detective and wiser from some mistakes that she makes. Her ability to learn also makes her appealing.

Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable and comforting. She’s loyal to her friends, works hard for her clients and has a strong sense of integrity. She’s also got enough fun and wit in her to be really interesting. I have the feeling that I could tell her just about anything.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Mma. Precious Ramotswe

26 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe

  1. I love these mysteries, Margot. They are – for want of a better word – gentle, very much growing out of the characters and, generally, being resolved without bloodshed. Smith’s love for the land comes through very strongly, too. I’m about two behind now in the series; if I can dig them out of the TBR pile CAREFULLY, without upending everything, I’m due for another visit with Mma Ramotswe and friends.

    • Les – I really like your choice of word gentle. I think it’s a very apt description of this series. You’re quite right too that these stories are much more about the characters than about bloodshed or convoluted plots. And yes, it’s obvious that McCall Smith loves the land; that runs all through the novels. Be careful if you reach for the next one on your list, though; I don’t want you to suffer a concussion from the other books in the TBR pile falling on you. 😉

  2. Precious is one of my favorite detective characters of all time…wouldn’t she be a wonderful dinner guest?

  3. kathy d.

    To make full disclosure here, I have not read the series. However, I did see all of the TV episodes starring Jill Scott and I absolutely loved it from start to finish. I was desolate upon seeing that the TV shows had finished.
    Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a wonderful, kind, compassionate and loyal person. On top of that, she is a very clever detective, finding ways around rules and strict personalities to solve the mysteries.
    This series had the least violence of any I’ve ever seen on TV, and I’d imagine that is the case in the books.
    Also, human relations are at the bottom of every case, with Mma Ramotswe weaving her way in and out of complicated relationships and situations.
    We should start a petition campaign online to “Bring back Mma. Precious Ramotswe”!

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about the violence level in this series. There’s really very little violence at all and what there is of it takes place “off stage.” You’re also right about Mma. Ramotswe’s kindness and compassion. She’s very good too at working her way through situations and using the cleverness you mention to solve cases. She has a sense of humour too which I like very much. I hope you get the chance to try the books. They really are worth the read.

  4. I read this series when it first came out Margot but I’ve left it drift recently. I did enjoy the books very much and they are told with so much affection. Thanks for reminding me of them.

    • Sarah – I like the way you put that: the series really is told with affection and it’s a well-written series too. I know what you mean about letting a series drift – I’ve done that myself.

  5. Ditto to Sarah’s comment. The first two I read were sensational but somehow it felt like Precious was complete for me in two books.

    • Patti – Now, that’s interesting. I wonder if there are other long-running series like that, where a reader feels that the series or character was complete after only a couple of novels.

  6. I have never read this series as the setting is not one that interests me. I have started looking for the 44 Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansion series though.and I just picked up an Isabel Dalhousie Mysterie. Although this No. 1 Ladies Detective series seems to be the most popular here. I should give it a go I guess!

    • Peggy – Setting is such an important part of a series that I’m not surprised it played a role in your decision not to try this series. I’ll be really interested in what you think of the Isabel Dalhousie series (the 44 Scotland Street series too, for the matter of that).

  7. Love the series, love the protagonist. Got to love something fresh and different in the mystery genre, and when this came out I loved the fresh approach and unique setting.

    • Elizabeth – Isn’t it a great series?! And you’re absolutely right; this was really innovative when it came out. The approach still is and that’s one of the many reasons I like it.

  8. By the time we are through the alphabet we will be going around the world. 🙂

  9. Great stuff Margot – I’ve only dipped in and out of this series (I’ve been borrowing copies from family and friends who seems to have a ton of them) and always find them wrily amusing. And I do believe that ‘traditionally-built’ will now have to enter my personal lexicon, post haste!

    • Sergio – Thank you 🙂 – I really do recommend the series. As you’ve found, one doesn’t have to read straight through the series in order to enjoy it. But there are some things that are a little richer for doing it that way.

      • This was (as is so often for me) somethign that I came to a bit late after watching the TV version and I think I was initially trying to avoid the stories that had already been already adapted. So yes, a bit chaotic really …

        • Sergio – Oh, I do the same thing. I definitely prefer to read a book first and then if I have interest watch the series. So I understand what you mean.

  10. I think I am in the minority here. I read the first in the series, probably about 10 years ago, and it did not do a thing for me. Maybe too gentle. After all this time, I should give the next one a try. Maybe I will see them differently now.

    • Tracy – That’s a fact of life isn’t it. One series does not fit all. You may find that your tastes have changed, and I always respect people who are willing to go back and find out of a series appeals to them more than it did. I like that self-reflection. And you never know…

  11. PeterReynard

    I picked these up many years ago when they were first getting popular but I only read a few chapters. I guess I was not in the right frame of mind to enjoy a gentle mystery. I wanted something fast-paced and edge-of-my-seat just then, so I put them back on my TBR list. And that was that. I need to get back to them again.

    • Peter – I’ve done that kind of thing too with certain authors. You’ve a well-taken point that frame of mind has a lot to do with the way we feel about a novel. Of course novels can be well-written or otherwise and that matters a lot. But time of life, frame of mind and so on matter too.

  12. Margot, did you ever see the television production of “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”? (Do I have that title right?) It is brilliant, and made me want to read the stories. How many are there, in this particular series? In the show, Precious had a suitor (the mechanic/garage owner). At the end of the show, they were just friends, but I had a feeling he wanted to pursue the matter a little farther, later! 🙂 Tell me, was he in the book? Does that relationship develop… further? 🙂 Thanks for this essay, and the reminder that I want to read these books!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the TV production. Precious Ramotswe does indeed become engaged to and later marries Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. I really like his character so I’m glad they get together. At the moment there are 13 novels in the series. Now of course, I’m biased, so you’ll have to discover for yourself, but I really recommend this series of novels.

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