Nobody would ever call Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe mysteries dark. But the popular and essentially sweet series, which kicked off with “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” in 1998, has always dealt with harsh reality. “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon” continues down this path, and if this book, the 14th in the series, dwells a bit more on life’s losses than those that came before it, that doesn’t negate its gentle nature.
Like its predecessors, this mystery, set in Botswana, ostensibly focuses on new cases for detective Ramotswe and her two-person agency to solve. This time out, these include a question about the inheritance of a farm and the defamation of the beauty salon of the title. In reality, as regular readers will expect, the book revolves more around the everyday personal issues of the invariably decent central characters than it does around either of these investigations.
By this point in the series, this is like catching up with old friends. Ramotswe and her husband, J. L. B. Matekoni, and their two foster children are doing well, and the agency’s associate detective, Grace Makutsi, and her husband are expecting a first baby. As the book opens, this latest development has raised the question of maternity leave and how the agency will function in Makutsi’s absence. In addition, the closeness of the longtime colleagues is threatened when a troublesome relative comes to stay. Still, in general, life is running along the lines of Ramotswe’s practice of “Optimistic Accounting,” in which blessings are often tallied.
That those blessings have been hard won is no secret to series fans. Before Ramotswe’s current marriage, long before the first book’s time frame, she was briefly married to an abusive jazz musician whose violence led to the death of their premature baby. Matekoni has in the course of the books suffered from disabling depression, and their foster daughter is wheelchair-bound because of an unspecified illness. These issues and others echo through the series, and they come to prominence several times in the new book.
The arrival of Makutsi’s baby is particularly bittersweet for Ramotswe, raising memories of her own lost child. Nor is she unaware of the sadness that may yet come. In one of the many asides that flesh out this quiet book, Ramotswe reveals an awareness that her foster daughter’s illness may shorten her life: “She did not like to spell it out, and anyway, the doctors had said that they could not tell.”
These specific thoughts are joined by a pervasive melancholy. Ramotswe has often reminisced about her late father, but death seems to be more on her mind these days. When she stops for a rest, for example, she notes: “You did not have to sit for long; even a few minutes was enough to remind you that . . . the years would slip through your fingers without your really noticing it until suddenly they were gone and you were old and before long it would be that moment that comes to everybody.”
Despite these grim musings, McCall Smith has not abandoned jollity. The simple style of these books is still peppered with amusing characterizations, as when Ramotswe views a car as having “small, mean-spirited windows,” and cake — “a large fruit cake rich in sultanas” — is frequently considered and enjoyed.
Nor has McCall Smith or his “traditionally built” heroine given up trying to set the world right despite the world’s seeming indifference. “You had to try to sort things out for others,” she decides, “and point them in the direction of the truth.”
Forgiveness and generosity, she ultimately concludes, are the answer to most of life’s ills. Which may explain the longevity of this series. Precious Ramotswe’s adventures, as inconsequential as they may seem, do not so much offer an escape from life’s woes as a suggestion for how to make the whole deal more palatable — fragility, fruit cake, and all.Clea Simon is the author of 13 crime novels. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.