World Literature

Alexander McCall Smith

 

BORN: 1948, Bulawayo, Rhodesia

NATIONALITY: Scottish

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)

Portuguese Irregular Verbs (2003)

The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004)

44 Scotland Street (2005)

 

 

Alexander McCall Smith. McCall Smith, Alexander, photograph. Juda Ngwenya / Reuters / Landov.

 

Overview

The diverse accomplishments of Alexander McCall Smith include a distinguished career as a legal scholar and more recent fame as a best-selling novelist. A professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, Smith has published many works on medical ethics and criminal law. For example, he has written about the duty to rescue and the impact of medical advances on parental rights. Smith also had in print numerous books of fiction for children and short-story collections before he published a series of detective stories set in Botswana. The first installment, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), became a best-selling novel in the United States after it was popularized by word of mouth. Readers and critics have been charmed by the stories, which are more about relationships, customs, and informal justice than sleuthing.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing Up in Africa. Smith was born on August 24, 1948, in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (later known as Zimbabwe), where his father worked as a public prosecutor in what was then a British colony. His mother wrote a number of unpublished manuscripts. The youngest of four children, Smith spent the whole of his childhood in Bulawayo and attended the Christian Brothers College there. He left Africa when he was seventeen years old to continue his education in Scotland.

Law and Teaching. After completing his education, Smith began teaching law at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He then went back to Africa—first to Swaziland to teach and then, by 1980, to Botswana. He assisted in creating Botswana’s first law school, taught law at the University of Botswana, and wrote a criminal code for Botswana. Many years later, he would publish The Criminal Law of Botswana (1992). The book interested critics with its discussion of how the country’s criminal law is unlike others in southern Africa and how it resembles the Queensland Criminal Code of 1899.

Smith eventually returned to Scotland, where he became a professor in medical law at the University of Edinburgh. Over the years, he wrote a number of significant articles and books about law and related questions in medical ethics. In 1983, he cowrote with Ken Mason Law and Medical Ethics which was updated every few years. In 1987, he coauthored Butterworths Medico-Legal Encyclopedia with John Kenyon Mason. One interesting title was Forensic Aspects of Sleep which considered, among other topics, the legal culpability of those who committed an alleged crime while sleepwalking.

As Smith’s reputation as an expert in medical legal ethics grew, he was granted many prestigious positions. He did several year-long professorships abroad, including a stint at the law school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He also served as the deputy chairman of the Human Genetics Commission for the British government. In addition, Smith served as Great Britain’s representative on the bioethics commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He regularly traveled around the globe in his UNESCO position, helping answer questions about issues such as how to manage DNA databases and protect the information therein.

Serial Writing. By the late 1990s, Smith branched out into adult fiction. After a visit to Botswana, he was inspired to write the 1998 novel The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Following The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Smith wrote five more books featuring Precious Ramotswe and other central characters. While the success of the series was satisfying for Smith, he began writing other series of fiction for adults. The protagonist of the Sunday Philosophy Club series is Isabel Dalhousie, a moral philosopher who faces various ethical dilemmas that arise in each book. This more ‘‘traditional’’ mystery series was generally praised, and the British Broadcasting Corporation bought the rights to turn it into a television series.

Intellectual concerns were the center of another series written by Smith that was published in the early 2000s. Originally written in 1997 and self-published at that time, Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a collection of short stories focused on the odd world of three German professors and their inability to function in everyday life. Poking fun at academics, Smith wrote the book after being inspired by a German professor he met at a conference in the 1980s. The original work was passed around among these intellectuals who appreciated the joke, and the author wrote two more books with the same characters and in the same lighthearted manner.

The prolific Smith had other ideas for series, starting with Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party (2004) and another less traditional series, 44 Scotland Street. The Scotsman commissioned Smith to write 44 Scotland Street as a serialized novel to be published five days a week for six months in 2004. This approach was highly stylized, yet at the same time was modernized, using reader input to steer the direction of the narrative.

Smith’s book contracts required him to produce a certain number of books a year, and despite his prolific writing abilities, Smith needed time to focus on his writing. In early 2004, Smith decided to take an unpaid leave of absence from teaching for the next three years. Also in 2004, he resigned as vice chairman of the Human Genetics Commission and relinquished his duties with UNESCO.

Currently, Smith lives in Edinburgh with his wife Elizabeth, who is a doctor, and his two daughters. He is the cofounder of an amateur orchestra called ‘‘The Really Terrible Orchestra,’’ in which he plays the bassoon.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Smith's famous contemporaries include:

Richard Burton (1925-1984): Welsh actor who was known for being outspoken, being the highest paid actor in Hollywood (at one time), and marrying actress Elizabeth Taylor twice.

Peter Matthiessen (1927-): This American naturalist and Zen Buddhist writes both historical fiction and nonfiction.

Peter Sellers (1925-1980): Sellers was a British comic actor best known for the movies Dr. Strangelove and Being There.

John Updike (1932-): This American author has won the Pulitzer Prize twice.

 

Works in Literary Context

While Smith has been likened to the British comic author P. G. Wodehouse, creator of the Jeeves and Wooster series of novels, he cites as a chief literary influence the late but eminent Indian novelist R. K. Narayan. More important influences, though, are people and their environments, especially those of non-Western cultures. Much of his fiction, especially The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, contains powerful descriptions of both the countryside of Africa and the kinship of its people because it has remained so much a part of him throughout his life.

Children’s Books. Smith’s books for children reflect both Western and non-Western cultural influences and are mostly written for beginning readers. One example showing Smith’s African background is ‘‘The White Hippo,’’ a story set in Gambia about the unsuccessful efforts of villagers who want to protect an albino hippo from a white man claiming to be a photographer. The twenty-seven stories in Children of Wax: African Folk Tales (1991) are more suited for older children and storytellers. Smith collected the tales from old and young members of the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe. Featuring shape-changing animals and supernatural powers, they nevertheless contain realistic portrayals of hardship and danger. The stories often serve to condemn bad behaviors such as greed and unfounded trust and show that justice does not always follow wrongdoing.

Adult Fiction. The collection Heavenly Date and Other Stories (1995) is comprised of original stories by Smith that are international in scope. Among them, ‘‘Intimate Accounts’’ is set in a fictional world, ‘‘Bulawayo’’ happens in Southern Rhodesia, and others take place in Zurich, Switzerland; Lisbon, Portugal; and Northern Queensland, Australia. The dark and funny pieces relate all kinds of strange dates, meetings, and exchanges between men and women.

An African Woman’s Perspective? Critics and readers alike have noted that Smith entered uncharted territory with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In fact, some readers have found it hard to believe that a white Scottish man could understand African women so well. With more than 1 million copies in the series having been sold, readers have apparently accepted Smith’s gift of perspective. He has made Africa and its people accessible around the world. In a statement explaining the novel’s setting, Smith said, ‘‘In Botswana, ties of kinship, no matter how attenuated by distance or time, linked one person to another, weaving across the country a human blanket of love and community.’’ According to Allison Block in Booklist, ‘‘It is those ties and that sense of community that continue to make this series so appealing to both genre and nongenre readers.’’

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Smith has a particular gift for creating detective fiction laced with humor. Here are some other works that combine mystery and humor:

The Thin Man (1933), a novel by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett, original master of the hard-boiled detective genre, introduces the witty married couple of Nick and Nora Charles in this novel, which inspired several ''Thin Man'' films.

The Mousetrap (1952), a play by Agatha Christie. This is the longest running play in theatrical history by the bestselling mystery writer of all time.

Lean Mean Thirteen (2007), a novel by Janet Evanovich. The latest volume in the Stephanie Plum ''number series'' finds bounty hunter Stephanie and her sidekick Lula in search of what has happened to Stephanie's exhusband.

Deathtrap (1978), a play by Ira Levin. Levin's play was the longest running comedy-thriller in Broadway history. It was adapted into a 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.

 

Works in Critical Context

The Importance of Kindness. Although a few critics have dismissed his works as too gentle and unassuming, Smith has consistently believed in his work. He told Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, ‘‘There is a role for books that say to people that life is potentially amusing and that there are possibilities of goodness and kindness—that kindness needn’t be dull, that it can also be elevating and moving.’’

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Precious (Mma) Ramotswe, and Smith’s novels about her, have charmed reviewers, who have found the novels fresh, amusing, and affecting. In BookLoons, G. Hall described the first installment as ‘‘truly unique,’’ explaining that ‘‘the best part of the book is, in fact, not the mysteries but the stories of Precious and her father.’’ Mahinder Kingra of the Baltimore City Paper judged that in this ‘‘deceptively frivolous’’ novel there is ‘‘as honest and sympathetic a portrait of contemporary African life as [Nigerian writer Chinua] Achebe’s.’’ Kingra commented that the book is ‘‘one of those rare, unassuming novels that seems to contain all of life within its pages, and affirms life in telling its story.’’ Christine Jeffords noted on the Best Reviews Web site that Smith ‘‘succeeds in giving his story a lilting, lyrical flavor that makes the reader feel almost as if she is listening to a story being spun by a native tale-teller.’’ Comments on the first three novels by Anthony Daniels in the Spectator credit Smith with an admirably simple writing style and the remarkable feat of ‘‘creating fictional characters who are decent, goodhearted but not in the least bit dull.’’ In addition, the critic said that ‘‘for all their apparent simplicity, the Precious Ramotswe books are highly sophisticated.’’

When Alida Becker reviewed the first three books for the New York Times, dubbing Mma Ramotswe the ‘‘Miss Marple of Botswana,’’ it dramatically increased public awareness of the series. As Becker noted, film rights for the series had already been sold to Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Gurewitsch found The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to be no less than ‘‘one of the most entrancing literary treats of many a year.’’

Nonfiction Works. Most of Smith’s legal scholarship treats subjects relating to medical and criminal law issues. He served as coeditor for and contributor to Eamily Rights: Family Law and Medical Advances (1990), which contains seven essays about the legal and ethical implications of new medical capabilities that affect the creation of life as well as the extension of life. The essays consider the impact of laws on a family’s ability to make their own medical decisions. Reviewers of Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Advances described the book as an in depth treatment suitable for both specialists and general readers. In the Sydney Law Review, Belinda Bennett recommended it as ‘‘a very readable collection’’ that avoids jargon and explains the necessary medical and scientific terminology. Jenny L. Urwin wrote in the Journal of Medical Ethics that it provides ‘‘interesting and thoughtful analysis’’ on a previously neglected subject. The book’s ‘‘interdisciplinary and comparative flavour’’ was noted in Eamily Law by Andrew Bainham, who also wrote, ‘‘The scholarship in this volume is, for the most part, as original as it is provocative and the two most impressive contributions are by the editors themselves.’’ Writing for Nature, Andrew Grubb commented on the context of Smith’s essay, saying, ‘‘Faced with this largely interventionist judicial attitude, it is left to Sandy McCall Smith to challenge its basis and to sound a note of caution.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, how does Smith depict his female protagonist and other female characters? How does he depict the men in the novel? What are the female views of the males in the book? Given the title and the gender treatments, would you say this is a ‘‘woman’s’’ book? Why or why not?

2. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the history of Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. Write a paper describing British involvement in Rhodesia, the development of the independent country of Zimbabwe, and recent events in Zimbabwe.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Web sites

Random House. Reader Group Guide: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/features/mccallsmith/books_ladies_rgg.html.

McCall Smith, Alexander. Official Website. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk/Pages/Home.aspx.