Under my byline

Fundamentally decent and slightly wonky

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 30 January 2010

Alexander McCall Smith, creator of lady detective Mma Ramotswe and other good-hearted heroes, is as nice as his lead characters

Caveat lector: this article will not meet standards of journalistic objectivity. It cannot, because Alexander McCall Smith is much too nice. At the end of the interview, when he learnt that this reporter’s mother was a huge fan who was unable to come along on account of a bad cold, the author took out his fountain pen and wrote her, without hurrying, a kind note in his tiny doctorly scrawl.

It’s significant to know this, in light of the good-hearted and rational lead characters Smith creates — Smith really does seem to be a nice man. In the years since the New York Times, in 2002, discovered his then-obscure Mma Ramotswe novels and kick-started their popularity (over 10 million copies now sold, in dozens of languages), many of his reviewers and interviewers have struggled with this peculiar problem: can this author really be taken seriously if his fiction lacks a “dark side”?

Smith is used to this line of questioning, even if he’s still a little defensive on the subject. But his readers don’t appear to mind. Over the last year or two Smith has revived an old literary genre by writing serialised novels (also available as podcasts) for two UK papers, the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman. Corduroy Mansions, Smith’s first novel for the Telegraph, had some 100 short chapters. As each instalment went up, there was a flood of comments and responses from ordinary readers — all of which the author kept track of.

Isn’t this avalanche of raw feedback intimidating to a writer? “It actually can be quite useful,” Smith says. “During the running of [the Telegraph novel] I noticed that one or two people were getting irritated by one of the characters, and I took that to heart, because one thing I have learnt in being the sort of novelist that I am is that if people don’t like a central character it means they won’t read whatever you’re writing. I’ve realised that people actually want to like the central character, and I feel more comfortable writing about characters I like anyway, so that’s no problem for me.”

Accordingly, the second title in the series, completed in December, was titled The Dog Who Came in from the Cold — after Freddie de la Haye, the canine character in Mansions who won online readers’ hearts.

Mma Ramotswe, the world-famous protagonist of his series of 11 (so far; 14 are contracted) No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels set in Botswana, is an extraordinarily likeable, reassuringly commonsensical private detective — the only female PI in her beautiful, lucky country. Smith is absurdly prolific: he has written some 70 books, including fiction for adults and children, and plenty of nonfiction related to his professional work as a medical ethicist (the kind of scientist-doctor-philosopher who helps decide ethical issues in medicine and medical research). He writes nearly every day and is known to turn out a thousand clean words an hour. So he clearly has the steam to meet what he sees as his responsibility towards his readers, who want more Mma Ramotswe, and more.

Smith is currently juggling four or five fiction series, and each one has a very different, but fundamentally decent and slightly wonky protagonist. Mma Ramotswe thus has a sister in fiction named Isabel Dalhousie, who also likes to solve mysteries (and philosophical conundrums). Isabel is the star of Smith’s second most famous series, the Sunday Philosophy Club books, set in Smith’s own home town of Edinburgh.

Asked who his favourite character is, the answer, instantly delivered, is a name from 44 Scotland Street, his Scotsman series: Bertie, “this little six-year-old boy with a dreadful mother. I like him,” Smith says, with relish. “He tells the truth, he’s honest, and he’s got the child’s perspective on the world. He’s wise beyond his years. Plus,” Smith adds intriguingly, “he’s got a mother problem.”

That’s a quick chirrup of reminder from the “dark side” of Smith, such as it is: his terrific intelligence, attunedness to human psychology and the reactions he provokes, and nicely sly playfulness. Decent and traditional-minded heroes and heroines he may write, but what brings them fully to life is something squirming beneath the surface: a tough, rough streak of unorthodoxy and independence. It’s this little subterranean frisson which turns the simple pleasure of an encounter with Alexander McCall Smith into full respect.

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Smith on writing fiction series: “A circle of friendship”

I’ve sort of drifted into writing series. I find that writing series is very enjoyable because you’ve got the same characters. You don’t have to reintroduce [them], and it’s rather interesting renewing one’s conversation with [them]. It also creates a rather interesting club for readers and writers. In a sense you’re part of the same circle. I get lots of letters from people who say that they’ve got quite strong relationships with one of the characters, or all the characters, and you feel as if you’re participating in a circle of friendship. I didn’t really understand that until I started to do [the Telegraph series], and then I saw it.

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The series of Smith

  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: 11 books so far, with the “traditionally built” lady detective Mma Precious Ramotswe
  • The Sunday Philosophy Club: six titles so far, with the cool-headed Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and investigator, as lead
  • The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom: three books whose lead is German academic Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a devotee of Portuguese irregular verbs
  • The 44 Scotland Street series: five titles so far, built around the gap year of Pat, a student in Edinburgh, and her friends and neighbours
  • Corduroy Mansions: two titles so far, on the lives and times of a group of residents of a slightly decrepit apartment block in Pimlico, London
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