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Onyx reviews: The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/22/2014

Business is relatively slow at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, owned by Precious Ramotswe and her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matakone, respectively. In fact, the garage is doing so poorly that Matakone must let one of his two employees go. Which should he choose? Fanwell, the former apprentice who passed his exams and is now a full-fledged mechanic, or Charlie, who seems destined to be a permanent apprentice? The decision seems obvious, and yet Matakone agonizes over it to the extent that Mma Ramotswe worries he's experiencing another depression. They both know that Charlie will never get another mechanic's job with his history, so firing him will be a severe blow.

However, Mma Ramotswe has a solution to the problem, one that does not sit well with Mma Makutsi, she of the 97% final grade from the Botswana Secretarial College and the talking shoes. Mma Makutsi and Charlie bicker like brother and sister, with Mma Makutsi always trying to minimize the young man's position. She has other fish to fry, though, which keeps her somewhat preoccupied. She decides to open a restaurant, hence the book's title. She has acquired the property, hired the renovators and even has a line on a chef, thanks to her real estate lawyer. 

How far Mma Makutsi has come, from the diffident young woman from Bobonang who excelled at school and has worked her way up from secretary to whatever meaningless title she has adopted for herself now. She has married well, has a son, and has the luxury of working because she wants to. The restaurant seems to be going along swimmingly until trouble arrives in the name of her arch-nemesis Violet Sopotho, a woman who isn't content just chasing after men with money. She has to humiliate Mma Makutsi at every turn, and this time she launches a deadly torpedo that explodes on the pages of the Botswana daily newspaper.

Of course there's a case for the agency to handle, too. A man named Mr. Sengupta and his sister, Miss Rose, hire the detectives to identify a mysterious Indian woman who appeared at their door. The woman doesn't know who she is, suffers amnesia, and is at risk of being expelled from Botswana if she can't prove she has the right to live there. Mma Ramotswe has her suspicions, but she decides to put Charlie on the case, surveilling the Sengupta house. Of course, Charlie makes something of a hash of the job, but he gathers just enough information for Mma Ramotswe to get to the bottom of things. The truth behind the plight of the woman known only as Mrs. resonates with Mma Ramotswe and her past life, before she came to Gabarone.

This is the fifteenth book in the series, and it breaks little new ground. McCall Smith clearly loves Botswana and this group of characters. There has been some growth in them since the day Mma Ramotswe hung out her shingle, but not too much. In fact, Mma Ramotswe seems to be on the verge of morphing into Isabel Dalhousie, one of McCall Smith's other series leads, a philosopher who debates the nature of moral rectitude, something Mma Ramotswe does increasingly in this book. She reports a woman who has been letting her children behave like a plague of locusts in the produce section of the grocery store and, when she deduces that her investigation into the mystery woman may be used to mislead Botswanan authorities, she recuses herself from the case. 

These are comfortable, cozy novels, the sort enjoyed while sipping a cup of tea on a lazy afternoon. The stakes aren't negligible, but rarely involve life or death situations. Readers may anticipate some of the crises before they occur because they so often arise due to the nature of the characters they have grown so familiar with. The resolutions to the various issues are often surprising, though, because they do not always hew to absolute right and wrong. It's not the detectives who prevail this time, though. Virtually all of the complications in this book are resolved by the interventions of Mma Potokwane, the resourceful and wise matron of the orphan farm. 

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