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Onyx reviews: The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith

It can be difficult to review a new entry in a series like The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. Alexander McCall Smith's writing is so consistent and solid that there isn't a weak book among the twelve that have been published so far, counting The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. By the same token, there hasn't been one that is particularly stronger than the others, either.

Most of the pleasure of reading these books comes from revisiting old friends. Readers will remember the first time Mma Grace Makutsi met Phuti Radiphuti while taking dance classes and how their awkward courtship evolved, including the tragic accident that befell Grace's fiancÚ. They will recall how Charlie and Fanwell tend to get into trouble from time to time—usually something to do with women—and they will remember how heartbroken Mma Ramotswe was when she had to give up the tiny white van that once belonged to her father, the late Obed Ramotswe.

Sometimes the repetition of "well known facts," such as Mma Makutsi's record score at secretarial school, can get a little tedious, but this is perhaps the books' biggest flaw. Though nominally crime novels, these are really slice-of-life stories involving the simple lives of simple people living in Botswana. They celebrate life and love and dignity, and respect the simpler ways of life. Even though Gaborone is far from a booming metropolis, some people who live there are nostalgic for the days when people had more consideration for each other and the old customs were honored.

The characters have all grown to love each other, though they often have awkward ways of expressing their emotions. Charlie may call Mma Makutsi a warthog out of frustration, but he will eventually come to regret his actions. They all know and put up with each others' faults and limitations. How they handle sometimes difficult situations is the take-home message behind these stories.

The cases that come to the detective agency generally involve infidelity or jealousy or theft of some sort. The main case in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party involves a man complaining that someone is maiming his cattle, which is a big deal in Botswana. People are defined by the size and quality of their herds. Mma Ramotswe takes the case seriously but is dismayed to find out that her client is not a very nice man. She's left with a dilemma when someone confides the (probable) truth about the situation to her. She's obligated to close the case but can she do so without causing more trouble? Her hypothetical mentor, Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection, never covered situations like this.

The other troubles are less serious in nature. Mma Makutsi is getting ready for her wedding day, which has at long last been set. She needs a new pair of shoes (she has a weird fetish whereby her shoes talk to her and provide counsel) and Phuti has given her free reign to buy what she needs, but something goes wrong, bringing to mind a misadventure with a mattress several books back. She's not too busy with her impending nuptials, though, to take time out to berate perennial apprentice Charlie when it seems like he's behaving badly after discovering that his girlfriend is pregnant with twins.

And, finally, there's the tiny white van, which keeps showing up around Gaborone like a ghost from Mma Ramotswe's past. The vehicle was in such bad shape that her husband, expert mechanic J.L.B. Matakone, despaired of repairing it and had it sold for scrap. Mma Ramotswe saw the wisdom behind this but she has mourned its loss, despite being the proud owner of a brand new tiny blue van.

Just about everyone from past books appears in the novel, including the domineering matron of the orphanage, Mma Potokwane, who isn't happy that she wasn't invited to the wedding. The two children, Puso and Motheleli are of the "seen but not heard" variety, rarely making a dent in the day to day lives of their foster parents. Mma Makutsi's nemesis, Violet Sephotho, is there, too, as a budding politician and perhaps that story will be told in the next installment.

Good deeds come back on those who perform them, and Mma Ramotswe's patience with Charlie, and her determination to get to the truth of the situation, pays huge dividends for her.


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