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Onyx reviews: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/29/2013

Over the course of the fourteen books that comprise the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series to date, there have been many changes in the characters' lives and in their hometown of Gabarone, Botswana, which is becoming busier and more congested all the time. Mma Ramotswe has gotten married, moved her office adjacent to her husband's garage (Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors) and taken in two foster children. Her assistant, Mma Makutsi, of the 97% grade at the Botswana Secretarial College, has risen through the ranks from secretary to assistant to associate detective. One of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's employees has successfully completed his apprenticeship. Even Charlie, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's perennial apprentice, shows signs of impending maturity. 

Finally, Mma Makutsi has gotten married and now has a son, Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti. Will the new mother want to keep her position at the detective agency, or will Mma Ramotswe be forced to break in a new assistant. Where could she possibly find someone to fill Mma Makutsi's shoes, especially those famously stylish pairs that at times seem to speak to her?

This is the biggest problem confronting Mma Ramotswe in the latest installment in the series. She is keenly feeling Mma Makutsi's absence on maternity leave when she takes on two new clients. One of them, a lawyer, asks her to verify the identity of a young man who is named as an heir in a will of which she is the executor. The other case involves a beautician who has just opened the salon that provides the book with its title. Someone is sending her threatening messages and spreading rumors that some of her clients were injured, thereby putting her new enterprise at risk. Mma Ramotswe is fully capable of investigating on her own, but there comes a time when she reaches a dead end in both cases. Under normal circumstances, she would brainstorm with her associate.

Meanwhile, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni has suddenly decided that he needs to be a "modern" husband, so he enrolls in a class. From his answers to the instructors' questions, it appears that he is much more contemporary in his thinking than many of his younger classmates. However, his efforts to put his desires to be more supportive into action meet with disaster. How could he consider himself modern if he doesn't know that you mash potatoes after you boil them, not before? Still, Mma Ramotswe appreciates his good intentions and promises to show him how he can be of more help around the house.

These aren't exactly crime novels, and Mma Ramotswe isn't exactly a detective, despite the name of her agency, which is hardly a prosperous enterprise, given that she is barely breaking even. She's more of a busybody, like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote, sticking her nose into other peoples' affairs. She has a good sense of intuition, but that doesn't prevent her from being led astray, as she nearly is in the case of the smear campaign. She puts a lot of faith in her ability to judge people's characters, but she is not infallible and only narrowly avoids making a terrible mistake. The case of the questionable heir also takes surprising and shocking turns, leaving Mma Ramotswe to decide what is morally correct rather than what is absolutely right in the eyes of the law.

Smith makes the interesting choice of having the detectives work out the solutions to the cases among themselves without describing the scene where Mma Ramotswe confronts the beauty salon culprit  or the one where she delivers the results of her investigation to the lawyer. His writing style is plain and simple. He often explains how a character feels before showing them displaying these emotions, lest there be any misunderstanding. 

There is a light, whimsical touch to these books. All the same, even though the cases rarely involve murder, the crimes are severe enough to be taken seriously. People can be difficult or unkind—Phuti Radiphuti's domineering, ultra-traditional aunt, for example—which is, perhaps, one of the worst offenses in Mma Ramotswe's eyes. By the same token, the books can be tinged with sadness while celebrating the goodness in people. Mma Ramotswe lost a child many years ago, so the arrival of a baby at the offices brings back difficult memories. 

By the end, though, all is right with the world—or at least the limited but much beloved world of Botswana—and the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is poised to face the future in much the same way as it has faced the past: with kindness.

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