Law and Conversation

May 8, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful books leave me with the overriding impression that this is an author who feels enormous affection for his characters.  Seeing him in person, as I now have on two occasions, confirms my view.  Mr. McCall Smith genuinely likes people and is unfailingly gracious.

Mr. Smith appeared at 7 PM on April 29 at The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL ( ) to speak, give a reading, and sign books.  Disappointed with myself at having arrived 40 minutes late, I held out hope that perhaps he might answer a question as he signed a book I’d intended to buy.  To my surprise and delight, I learned that he had offered to reprise his talk for the benefit of other latecomers and the crowd that hadn’t been able to fit into the store on time.

Noting his incurable affliction of “serial novelism,” Mr. Smith enumerated the various series and serial novels he’s written.  Most famously, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series centers around Mma Precious Ramotswe, an entrepreneurial detective in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city. 

A ruddy-faced Scot who lives in Edinburgh, sometimes wears a kilt, and sports an upper-class British accent might not strike the average person as a likely author of a series set in the African nation of Botswana.  But, though Mr. McCall Smith has lived in Edinburgh for many years, he was born and partly educated in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, which shares a border with Botswana.  Now an emeritus professor of law at the University of Edinburgh, Smith helped set up a law school in Botswana, where he also taught as a visiting professor.  In addition to his many other academic and legal publications, he wrote a book on Botswana’s criminal law.  His books, populated by three-dimensional characters speaking a musical dialogue in a land whose beauty you can see in your mind as you’re reading his narrative, bear out his credentials:  Smith knows a thing or two about Botswana. 

Smith says online (at ) that he finds Botswana an interesting, admirable country with patient, decent, hardworking people.  He continues there, as he reiterates at his signing appearances, “I thought, too, that it was a great pity that there are so many negative books and articles about Africa. I wanted to show readers in the rest of the world that there are many great and remarkable people living in southern Africa – people who lead good lives, with honour and integrity. Mma Ramotswe is one such person.”

Three of Smith’s other series are set in Great Britain.  “The Sunday Philosophy Club” series stars Isabel Dalhousie, the independently wealthy fortyish editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics in Edinburgh.  Like Mma Ramotswe, Isabel spends a considerable amount of time musing upon the day-to-day behavior of people and their reasons for acting as they do, which, I infer, is a reflection of the author’s own strong personal and academic interest in ethics.  In “44 Scotland Street,” also set in Edinburgh, and “Corduroy Mansions,” set in London, Smith revives the delightful serial novel.  He publishes both series in daily serial installments, the former in The Scotsman, the latter in The Telegraph.  Though The Scotsman doesn’t make those installments freely available online, The Telegraph does, at .  The Telegraph also provides a free podcast version of the daily series.  At his talk in Winnetka, Smith said he’s writing more installments in both series right now (which he termed “madness’) and that the newspapers will start running them in September.

The “44 Scotland Street” installments are compiled and published in book form every so often, as will be “Corduroy Mansions.”  I’ve enjoyed both series hugely and wish that Smith’s success with them would influence other newspapers to arrange with authors to publish more novels in serial form, as the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner did Armistead Maupin’s “Tales Of The City,” which was part of Smith’s inspiration to begin “44 Scotland Street.”   If you find it hard to read for pleasure because you’re just too darned tired in the evenings, you might find that these books are perfect; even if you’re falling-down exhausted, you should still be able to focus long enough to read the three pages that one installment consumes.

Smith’s least-known series stars Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld and, to date, includes three titles:  “Portuguese Irregular Verbs,” “At The Villa Of Reduced Circumstances,” and “The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs.”  Anyone who’s spent any time in the world of academia without losing a sense of humor should appreciate this series, centering around academicians at the Institute of Romance Philology at Regensburg, Germany.  Points of high dramatic tension in these three slim volumes include Prof. Dr. von Igelfeld’s discovery and wonderment that someone has actually checked out his magnificent treatise, the 1200-odd page “Portuguese Irregular Verbs,” from the Institute’s library and his confirmation, through inspecting his desk blotter in the mirror of the men’s washroom, that—the nerve!—one of his colleagues has been using his office during von Igelfeld’s sabbatical in Cambridge. 

Smith said he’d originally had the first von Igelfeld volume published privately, in a run of 500 copies, 250 of which a professor pal of his who inspired him to write it purchased, because he didn’t think many people would really want to read it.  Having studied Portuguese myself, I couldn’t resist the first title and eagerly read the next two as well.  Depicting petty academic politics as humorously as it does, the series should be a cult favorite for academicians. 

Smith said again in Winnetka that he’s coming out with a fourth von Igelfeld volume soon.  Since he’s been saying this, both through his websites and in person, for at least a couple of years, I’ve started to wonder whether he means it.  This time, however, he related a few details that will appear in the book as well as its title:  “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil.”

A large part of the attraction of Smith’s books for me, and, I would imagine, for many others, is their lightness.  Though his stories do not ignore unfortunate and unhappy events, there are no graphic depictions of violence.  His stories always end on upbeat notes, too, and without ever being saccharine. In podcast interviews, I’ve heard Smith point out that other writers have chosen to write of Africa’s horrendous, wrenching problems, and have done so very well.  He, however, prefers to highlight the positive side of Africa as well as of his books’ other settings—and he does so very well.

But Smith’s fiction hasn’t always been light.  The first time I heard the author speak in person, at the College of Du Page in April 2007, I asked him about his short story collection, “Heavenly Date and Other Stories,” which doesn’t appear in the bibliographies at the front of his currently popular books.  Like his other works of fiction, I noted, those stories are very well and tightly written—but, in contrast to his series, their tone is generally dark.  On that occasion, Smith brushed off my inquiry with a lighthearted “I used to write that way, but now I’ve reformed.”  This time, when he again graciously took a question from me (I was, after all, waving my arm as I sat on the floor right in front!), he explained that the book isn’t included in the bibliographies because it’s published by a different company (which I found surprising) and gave a straightforward and succinct answer to why he isn’t writing stories like the ones in that collection any more:  “I can write that way, but I prefer not to.”  And what better reason could there be?  Life is short—or life is long—too short, or too long, to continue doing things you’d rather not.

Before reading a short excerpt from his new book in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, Mr. McCall Smith provided a few more entertaining anecdotes and glimpses into his writing.  He said he’s able to be so prolific by going into a sort of a trance, or dissociative state, when he sits down to write, actually hearing the dialogue in his head as he’s writing it down at the amazing rate of around 1000 words per hour.  In an informative interview published on , he said he generally does very little revision, though in a number of talks, including at The Book Stall and College of Du Page, he noted that his publisher apprised him on one occasion that Isabel Dalhousie was sounding far too much like Precious Ramotswe, and he revised that work accordingly.  He’s written himself into one of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books in a tea scene as “a person who writes books” who appears in a photograph on the table.  And, he revealed, Bertie of the “44 Scotland Street” series will remain six years old for the foreseeable future, as he has for the last five years, though he recognizes that Bertie himself wants nothing better than to turn eighteen and get out from underneath his domineering mother.

In the most important way, Smith appears to live his life as do his two most famous characters, Mma Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie:  by thinking about and striving to do what is right.  Though he must have been tired the night he spoke at The Book Stall, he appeared jolly and upbeat, volunteered to speak twice so as not to disappoint any of his fans, took questions from his audience, and had a few kind words to say to each person who’d stood in line to have him autograph a book.  He answers questions and even solicits and accepts plot line suggestions from readers online, at The Telegraph’s site, for example.  (Mr. McCall Smith, if you happen to read this, I wish you’d do more with Big Lou, a gem of a character in your 44 Scotland Street series.)  And he donates a substantial portion of the profits from his books and other endeavors to worthy causes in Africa.  He said at The Book Stall that he’ll travel to Tanzania in June before continuing on to Botswana and is helping a rabies eradication effort there.

Alexander McCall Smith has also published a number of children’s books and some folk tales of Africa and Britain, not to mention a number of treatises on legal, medical, and ethical topics.  You can find out more about the author and his books by visiting his official website at (at which you can subscribe to his newsletters) as well as his Wikipedia entry at .  He provides some reading recommendations as well as insight into his writing at .

1 Comment »

  1. […] “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, […]

    Pingback by Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012 « Law and Conversation — January 2, 2012 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

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