Book Review: The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, by Alexander McCall Smith

Available in bookstores nationwide.
Precious Ramotswe wakes up one morning with “a sudden feeling that the next few hours were going to be rather unusual … a feeling that something interesting and out of the ordinary lay ahead”. As readers will soon discover, if they did not already know, Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the most famous detective agency in Botswana, is seldom wrong.

This is the fifteenth book in the internationally bestselling series by Alexander McCall Smith; the series having started in 1999 with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I’ve seen the colourful covers in libraries, bookshops, and the hands of people on planes and beaches for years – but I confess to never having read a single book in the series. Until now.

A new case, a new employee, and a new business venture for her detective agency partner all combine to keep the marvellous Mma Ramotswe on her toes. Does her new client really have sudden-onset amnesia; or are the mysterious “Mrs” and her benefactors hiding something? Will ex-apprentice mechanic Charlie prove to be a liability as the agency’s new assistant detective-in-training? And what does Mma Makutsi know about running a café, even if she did get 97% in her secretarial exams?

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a series of novels by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, set in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has taught at the University of Botswana. He maintains a close relationship with the country and his love of it shows in his writing. Like Edinburgh in the Detective Rebus series (by Ian Rankin) and Venice in the Commissario Brunetti series (by Donna Leon), Botswana is almost a character of its own in the story, such is its presence:

“Some people said that the air in the morning had no smell; she thought they were wrong, for it smelled of so many things – of the acacia leaves that had been closed for the night and were now opening at the first touch of the morning sun; of a wood fire somewhere, just a hint of it; of the wind, and the breath that the wind had, which was dry and sweet, like the breath of cattle.”

Dr McCall Smith must be one of the most ridiculously prolific authors on the planet. Apart from his fifteen No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, he has also written nine books in the 44 Scotland Street series, nine in the The Sunday Philosophy Club series, and at least forty-one other works of fiction, plus thirteen academic works (he is also an international expert in medical law), including the scintillatingly titled Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Advances. One wonders when the good professor finds time to sleep.

Starting at book number 15 didn’t matter in the slightest. It was a bit like starting partway through an established television series; it might take you a few moments to catch up, but thanks to some cleverly efficient writing, the characters’ backstory quickly becomes apparent and you easily find yourself immersed in a new world where the main story is wrapped up nicely within the allotted episode and the main characters are left to continue on to the next instalment. I will definitely be dipping back into Mma Ramotswe’s world again soon.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café
by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408704332

Auckland Writers Festival, Friday 16 May

Al-Khalili, Jim (c) Furnace LtdMy first event today, A Question of Civilisations, was a panel discussion between Iraq-born scientist Jim Al Khalili (left), Egyptian writer and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi and Iranian-born scholar of religions Reza Aslan, chaired by Radio New Zealand’s Susie Ferguson. The discussion was wide-ranging, from the West’s perception of the East to the ‘youth bulge’ in the populations of Middle Eastern countries; and from the history of Arabic achievement in the sciences to the way media narrative shapes our views of other cultures. I found it utterly fascinating and was very sorry when the session ended.


Aslan characterised the cultural shift taking place amongst Middle Eastern young people as the casting off of ascribed identities, the rejection of both colonialism and counter-colonialism and the creation instead of an identity that does not rely on foreign definitions. Rashidi, who had spoken so intimately at the gala night the evening before, talked about how Egyptian women are choosing to wear the veil increasingly as a sign of cultural identity rather than religious affiliation, and how the sense of inferiority that she remembers feeling compared to Westerners when she was a child is gradually draining away. I was particularly struck by the way Khalili (who is currently the president of the British Humanist Association) spoke of the opening up of the world (in terms of increased connectivity through technology) as hopefully leading to a “moral homogeneity”; a global civilisation in which we can all agree what is right and what is wrong. What an extraordinary dream.

Welsh, Irvine  bw c Rankin 2Next up was Scottish author Irvine Welsh (left) in conversation with Noelle McCarthy. In common with the previous session, it was chaired by a Radio New Zealand presenter, giving me that strange sensation you only get when a familiar voice turns out to have a (completely unfamiliar) body. Also in common were themes of media and narrative, and the ways in which news media ascribes story arcs and three-act structures to real life, which is of course messy, fragmented and illogical.

Welsh, who I’d also seen at the gala night the previous evening, slipped very smoothly into interview mode: since the success of Trainspotting a decade ago, he has obviously become a professional novelist and a regular on thegatecrash festival circuit. His accent – unlike that of many of his famous characters – was easy to understand, and he and McCarthy had an excellent rapport. He came out with some great quotes:  “As a Scot, it’s my birthright to look silly without any clothes on”; “I love the way we’re constantly undermined by our physical selves”; “learning to de-role might have saved my first marriage”; “sometimes characters gatecrash their way into a novel”.

Writer-Alexander-McCall-S-001And lucky me: I got to spend An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith! (also with an unnervingly embodied familiar RNZ voice, Jim Mora.) From the moment he appeared, Smith (left) had the packed-out theatre audience in the palm of his hand. He was friendly, charming, completely at ease; seemingly genuinely pleased to be with us and enjoying spinning us yarns. He was welcomed onto the stage by a bassoon player, in honour of Smith’s role as progenitor of the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh. (He joked that they only get conductors who are on community service.)

The good news, if you’re a fan of Smith’s books, is that there are a hell of a lot of them and they keep coming, at the astounding rate of four or five novels each year. He told us he writes a thousand words a day and that he’s due to finish off

 Mma Precious Ramotswe

Mma Precious Ramotswe

the latest Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency manuscript by the end of the week (huzzah for more Mma Ramotswe!). He calls this “serial novelism” and notes that it is invariably fatal. And, as if this didn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also a publisher, running a small press that publishes his “friends’ mothers’ books – most mothers do write books”. He invited the audience to send him their mothers’ manuscripts.

As with A Question of Civilisations earlier today, conversation turned to Western perceptions of other cultures, in this case African culture in the Botswana of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency. Because Smith’s books are generally happy, he is often accused of wearing rose-tinted spectacles, of being patronising; of being fundamentally unable, as a white man, to write in the voice of a black woman. His response? Although there are undoubtedly bad things in the world, “I believe in denial, it’s really really good”. Unlike Welsh, Smith chooses to focus on kindness and forgiveness rather than cruelty and degradation, and it’s obviously working – the theatre was full not just of people who’d come to hear him talk, but of devoted fans.

Today has been a mixture of two of the things I love most about writers festivals: seeing writers whose works I have enjoyed, and hearing very different, separate discussions which seem to connect to each other in unexpected ways. Looking forward to tomorrow!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

New Zealand Listener Gala Opening Night: True Stories Told Live – Truth and Lies

True Stories Told Live: Truth and LiesAWF_2014_Get-The-Full-Story

There was a great buzz at the Aotea Centre on Thursday night for the gala festival event,
in which eight writers were invited to speak on the theme of truth and lies for seven minutes, with neither scripts nor props.

Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien introduced the evening with the rather startling assertion that artists have 229% more sex than average (truth? or damned lies and statistics?), before Carol Hirschfeld (left) stepped in with her newscaster’s air of unflappable calm to MC the evening.

pp_inua_ellamsFirst up was Nigerian British poet and performer Inua Ellams (left). Obviously supremely confident in front of an audience, he took to centre stage (rather than hiding behind the podium) to tell us a story of a long-ago breakup. “If all breakups were this beautiful”, he said, “I’d break up every day.” He painted a vivid picture of a Cambridge dorm room, a beautiful girl, and the sun coming out to illuminate a tear on her cheek. He helped heal the pain of heartbreak with poetry: “poetry helps me rediscover who I am”.

Ellams finished with that famous quote from Keats: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ellams was followed by celebrated photographer Marti Friedlander, hailed by Hirschfeld as a national treasure. She started with one minute’s silence for the abducted Nigerian girls − an uncomfortable truth if ever there were one − before lightening the mood by remarking that, in marriage, lies are often preferable. Charmingly, Friedlander confessed “I’ve told some fantastic lies in my time and I’m pleased to have told them.”

Next up was American novelist AM Homes (right), homes_amwho, it turned out, had lied when she agreed to do a scriptless event, instead taking to the podium to read us an extract from her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. Nobody minded: she’s a superb storyteller, and gripped us all with a tale of her own beginnings. A lawyer heralded her birth: “your bundle has arrived, and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.” She compared the discovery of bits of data about her birth parents to being a recovering amnesiac. Homes recalls the strangeness of meeting her birth father and recognising her body on him, “the departments of ass”. She left me with a desire to read her books.

The fourth writer/performer was explorer and historian Huw Lewis-Jones, standing in for Lawrence Hill, who had been prevented by illness from attending. Lewis-Jones strode barefoot onto the stage and structured his talk around his lack of shoes. He invited us to consider their absence: Was it to better appreciate the carpet? To use shoelessness as a prop? To illustrate the way his journeys follow in the footsteps of great explorers? Eventually he hinted he was following the advice of a kuia, who had told him to take off his shoes for his talk in order to better connect to the earth − and so as to not walk mud into the building.

Irvine WelshBritish Lewis-Jones was followed by Scottish Irvine Welsh (left), author of Trainspotting. After commenting on the zombification of jet leg “(just like taking drugs, only without the fun part”), he launched into a rollicking yarn about a devilish cat. This cat, a giant, pit-bull-like tom (who I thought must have been like Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), “kidnapped my wife” by trapping her in a bathroom. It then emigrated to Illinois with its owners, where it took on not only the neighbourhood cats but also a coyote! Welsh made us laugh and I was sorry to see him leave the stage.

Next up was Kiwi columnist and novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (right) , spicing things up in a black pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmltutu. She spoke feelingly about the terror being asked to go scriptless, and the way her seven minutes on stage had taken up hundreds of hours of worrying. Lynch promised to tell us the story of buying pyjamas for her dead father, but instead ended up talking about an anxiety dream she had had before the festival, in which she was delivering her seven-minute talk to us naked, and (in the dream) needed to bend down and pick up her lucky pen. I hope she is able to enjoy the feeling of relief that it’s now all over.

After Lynch we had a complete change of pace with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi, who somehow managed to come across as very private and shy while also being an excellent public speaker, creating a sense of intimacy in the huge Aotea Centre theatre. She spoke movingly about her absent father, who went away on business for a fortnight and was still gone twelve years later. Rashidi said her friends call her “slippery”, and told the story of slipping out of a writers’ retreat after being aggressively love-bombed by an ultra-successful bright young thing.

bulldozerThe final writer to grace the stage was the inimitable Alexander McCall-Smith, author of one of my favourite series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He began with the grandiloquent claim to be the only writer present telling the truth, and proceeded to spin a tall tale about a trip Montalcino. He claimed that, in the absence of hire cars available, he instead hired a bulldozer in which to pootle about the Tuscan countryside: “the advantage of which is that you can remove the bits you don’t like”. I think it was the way he collapsed into laughter at this point which was my first clue that his claim to truth was itself a lie. His wonderful good humour was infectious and got the whole audience chuckling.

After Hirschfeld had summed up the writers’ performances, a short memoriam film was shown to mark the passing of many authors over the past twelve months. Then all writers returned to the stage and we were invited to meet them at the book signing table afterwards. One thing’s for certain: the festival’s off to a rollicking great start!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage


Alexander McCall-Smith at the DWRF 2014

There was a reserved pew for the media, which was fortunate: the cathedral was full at a quarter to two on a gorgeous afternoon in the Dunedin autumn.

There was the scent of a cathedral: cool stone, dark wood, incense and yesterday’s wax. The stained glass windows were aglow and the pews were awash with murmurs of anticipation (interior, below). Word had got out that the writer we were there to meet was a man of charm, wisdom and wit.53_nave

Then there were two men on stage, and a swell of applause. One of the men wore a dark suit and a full beard. This was the host – Scottish writer and Dunedin resident, Liam McIlvanney. He introduced Edinburgh-based English writer Alexander McCall-Smith with a wonderful and generous description, speaking in a Scots baritone of McCall-Smith’s “astonishing popularity” and “addictive fiction.” He mentioned that McCall-Smith has written five wildly successful fiction series and sold tens of millions of books, is the author of collections of short stories, academic works, and over thirty books for children, and that he also holds honorary doctorates from nine universities.

Even in his slightly rumpled jacket, Writer-Alexander-McCall-S-001Alexander McCall-Smith (right) was not intimidated by his own credentials. He opened his mouth and it was immediately clear that his talent and eloquence is not confined to his writing desk. He began with an anecdote about the orchestra in which he plays the bassoon, an orchestra for terrible players that is going from weakness to weakness. He tried to hold back his own laughter as he talked. The audience didn’t – we were rolling in the aisles, or at least giggling in the pews from the outset.

With quietly well-timed prompts from McIlvanney, McCall-Smith roved through a range of topics: his initial academic career in medical then criminal law; the risks and pleasures inherent in serializing a novel (having to maintain momentum andseven send in copy, even when rounding Cape Horn and losing internet connection; not being able to kill off characters during revision); absorbing reader feedback (“You need to get rid of Bruce”); maintaining a character as a six-year-old for eight years (“He was really looking forward to his seventh birthday party”); spending a year in Belfast at the height of ‘the troubles’ and discovering Northern Irish writers; WH Auden; ‘Tartan Noir’; the fallibility of festival microphones; and a tongue-in-cheek refutation of malls and mobile phones (“There’s a lot to be said for the power of denial – I just refuse to recognise any changes I don’t like.”)

Interspersed with and leavening the hilarious anecdotes and spontaneous asides were many insights into McCall-Smith’s ethics, ideals and optimistic outlook. He presented as a deep and generous thinker, curious enough about life to constantly find the humour in it. Even when the topic at hand was relatively serious, he couldn’t seem to prevent himself finding a funny angle, voice rising and cracking as another fit of giggles erupted. He was constantly verbally ‘elbowing’ his onstage companion; McIlvanney did well to keep a straight face. The beard might have helped. The rest of us gave our facial muscles a good workout.

Then it was question time, which McIlvanney had to curtail as McCall-Smith could have gone on all afternoon. Rousing applause then echoed from the rafters. A little regretfully, we rose as one and shuffled down the marbled aisles, murmuring thanks to the organizers of the Writers and Readers Festival, a departing congregation with numb backsides but warm hearts.

Event attended by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Alexander McCall-Smith is doing an event in Christchurch on Tuesday 13 May, and in Auckland this weekend. Check out Christchurch Writer’s Festival and Auckland Writers’ Festival  to book.