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Case Closed: Why I Greatly Enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s Mystery Novels

Updated on February 1, 2017
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My aunts Jone and Louise deserve credit for exposing me to the internationally celebrated writings of Alexander McCall Smith. Over nine years have passed since I surveyed the bookshelves in the Greeley, Colorado home of Jone and Glenn, my uncle, and discovered paperback copies of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Tears of the Giraffe. Intrigued, I asked Jone about them. She encouraged me to read them; after I did, she mentioned first hearing about them from Louise. Almost immediately I was besotted with his witty and accessible mystery novels. Typically disinclined to reading volumes in a series—two noteworthy exceptions: the Harry Potter novels and the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card—I’ve revisited this detective series, as well as read two volumes from his Isabel Dalhousie series, numerous times. Although not ambitious enough to read every book in either series—he is an astonishingly prolific wordsmith—I’ve read over a dozen of his mystery novels. And, if I know myself at all, I’ll joyfully return to his writings sooner rather than later.

Novelist Alexander McCall Smith

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As someone often fascinated by trends—whether in my life or elsewhere—I’ve contemplated why I’ve developed an unquestionable preference for his writings. Could this be another unflattering case of literary laziness in which I return to a certain author because I am unmotivated to find someone else to read? My affinity, even if partially motivated by sloth, is nevertheless a force of nature. It’s so established, in fact, I bristled when a member of my book club commented how, after reading one of his books, she wasn’t interested in reading any others. Considering the strength and immediacy of my reaction, you would think she had directly insulted me.

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A key reason I enjoy his novels is because they are unfailingly wholesome. There is no danger of encountering profanity, graphic violence, and so forth. He will, if necessary, allude to unsavory or immoral events, but, unlike too many modern authors, he doesn’t offer a blow-by-blow account. Despite this, he accurately describes the inherent messiness and vexations involved in living a human life; indeed, his believable characters and adeptly-described setting are two additional reasons I’ve read so many of his works.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series takes place in Botswana. As someone who has never set foot in Africa, I simply do not and cannot know if his representation of this landlocked African nation is accurate. However, based on his descriptions of the parched earth, intolerable heat, poisonous snakes, and beyond, the landscape comes alive. It presumably helps, at least for me, he doesn’t offer excessive detail about the physical environment. Similarly, he concisely describes the physical particulars of his characters.

His characters are, like the individuals I cherish in real life, complex and contradictory. He doesn’t shy away from the foibles and flaws of human nature; he also recognizes the redeeming qualities which can—whether readily or only with considerable effort—be found in virtually any one. As a fellow writer of fiction, I’m impressed with his ability to persuasively highlight why a character is acting insecure or vain or unkind. He also has a knack for describing the conflicts which occur between and within characters. I’m convinced, whether wrongly, rightly, or otherwise, this facility is a direct byproduct of his admirable degree of self-awareness and keen observation skills.

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Unlike numerous modern movies and other forms of entertainment, the action in his novels unfolds slowly, almost leisurely. The main characters are allowed plentiful introspection; for more impatient readers, such pondering may become tiresome. As a fellow contemplative, I do not generally mind reading about a character who is second-guessing his or her initial conclusion. I feel, truth be told, greatly at home with the pace of his novels. They seem true-to-life—something I greatly appreciate. After all, if you pause to consider the constitution of your life, I’m willing to bet nothing truly consequential happens on a typical day. Naturally everyone experiences family dramas and may even be emotionally impacted by a national tragedy or, conversely, bolstered by watching an international sporting event like the Olympic Games. Yet, when it comes down to it, most of life is fairly routine. And, with wit, wisdom, and compassion, Alexander McCall Smith writes about what happens when, well, not much is happening.

His writing style, especially his generous use of semi-colons and suitable word choices, is another reason I’ve read so many of his novels. Akin to hearing the voice of someone I’ve spent countless hours conversing with, reading his mystery novels is comforting and edifying. It is, so to speak, a form of homecoming.

I’m not here to heartily and unequivocally recommend his writings. However, if you’re at a loss for what to read next, perhaps his fictional worlds would entertain and engage and expose you to international locations where, because of the unavoidable limits of our human lives, you may never be able to visit in person.

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