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A Song of Comfortable Chairs: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (23)

Review

A Song of Comfortable Chairs: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (23)

For starters, a full confession here. I have never read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s 22 previous tales in his internationally popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Not a one. But after a thoroughly enjoyable immersion in his just-released A SONG OF COMFORTABLE CHAIRS, I’ve promised myself to correct that failing as soon as possible.

I’m one of those folks who have mainly satisfied their love of cozy, clever and historical period mysteries through film and television. I can watch multiple episodes of “Poirot,” “Father Brown,” “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” and even the more ghoulish “Midsomer Murders” with rapt attention.

But several mystery-loving friends gently chided me for not actually reading good mysteries. “You really ought to try one of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels,” one said. “You wouldn’t believe the things they get up to in Botswana!” And that’s what led me to go rogue on the review list and choose A SONG OF COMFORTABLE CHAIRS. I was hooked from the first page. Smith drew me into an exotic African urban setting by making it feel surprisingly like home, just in a different climate.

"[I]t wasn’t the cases themselves that captured my main attention and affection. It was the many side themes and internal musings of Precious Ramotswe that I’ll remember with admiration and gratitude."

Without a trace of tired formulaic writing (quite a challenge if you’ve been there 22 times before!), Smith's anchor character --- the eccentric self-made sleuth Precious Ramotswe --- and her slightly vain but good-hearted partner, Grace Makutsi, navigate through myriad details of community life waiting for cases to emerge, cases that only they can solve.

It’s a tried-and-true pattern, but one that never gets old, as all their experience is tested with every new variation on timeless human frailties such as deception, infidelity, personal vanity and situational business ethics. As in so many of his previous No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, Smith is a master orchestrator of multiple plotlines and currents of influence. A SONG OF COMFORTABLE CHAIRS is no exception.

The opening pages slowly reveal (nothing moves very fast in Botswana) that Grace Makutsi’s husband Phuti, owner of the town’s leading furniture store, is being aggressively undercut by an upstart competitor. Phuti has become deeply depressed, and Grace is worried that their livelihood and family status are in grave danger. The situation hits very close to home for Precious; this will be no ordinary case to solve.

Not long after, another very personal problem emerges when Patience, an old school friend of Grace and a single mother, comes to town with her teenaged son to start a new life away from an abusive partner. The boy is already getting into trouble and could destroy his mother’s hopes for a stable family life with a much kinder and gentler new man.

Clustered around these main characters are more than a dozen deftly drawn supporting ones who fill in all the social spaces with their own small but important contributions. Their stories, preoccupations, aspirations and schemes add such a genuine cultural flavor that you’d be forgiven for guessing that Smith lived in Botswana, not Scotland. Of course, the double plot mysteries get solved with brilliant but practical ideas hatched and executed by Precious and Grace with their accustomed eccentric flair.

But it wasn’t the cases themselves that captured my main attention and affection. It was the many side themes and internal musings of Precious Ramotswe that I’ll remember with admiration and gratitude. In her wise, unhurried approach to life, Precious has spent years absorbing and reflecting on what works to better the world and what doesn’t.

Moving to the gentle rhythm of Botswana, which calls for many tea breaks during a business day, long conversations in the cool of the evening, and, of course, ample home-cooked meals in between, Precious makes and takes time to engage in detailed internal reflections on issues of the day that go far beyond the borders of her beloved country. She reflects on feminism, body image, empathy for those both like and unlike oneself, how men and women think differently and must learn to accommodate, how intelligence and formal education don’t always coincide, and how doing the right thing can become derailed so easily.

And Precious doubtless has done so before in the many adventures Smith has created to test her ample skills and generous nature. But A SONG OF COMFORTABLE CHAIRS also evokes a feeling of growth and understanding that connects with every reader caught up in the vast embrace of a truly relatable character.

At the end of this clever, hilarious and sometimes poignant mystery tale, I just want to say to Precious Ramotswe, “You go, girl!” 

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on September 10, 2022

A Song of Comfortable Chairs: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (23)
by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Publication Date: September 6, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0593316975
  • ISBN-13: 9780593316979