Onyx reviews: The
Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith
The Miracle at Speedy Motors is a charming crime novel. It falls into
the broad subcategory of mysteries known as cozies, gentle books in which any
major crimes are take place off screen, as it were. Where noir novels focus on
bleakness and isolation, cozies are the antithesis, reveling in connection and
optimism—rosy instead of noir. Like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels, much
of the intrigue arises from small town politics—the spats and friction between
people who've known each other all their lives.
The Miracle at Speedy Motors is the ninth book in Alexander McCall
Smith's series featuring the proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
The setting is exotic and fresh: a small town in Botswana, a relatively new
Commonwealth country bordering South Africa.
The proprietor is Mma Ramotswe. Mma is the Setswana female form of
address—few people use her given name: Precious. By her own admission, Mma
Ramotswe is a traditionally built woman, which is to say: large. Her agency is
housed in a small office at the side of her husband's service station, the
eponymous Speedy Motors, in the town of Gaborone. Her husband is Mr. J.L.B.
Matekoni—everyone refers to him by this name, including his wife and their two
Someone is sending poison pen letters to Mma Ramotswe. They are brief, and
the insults they contain generously include her associate detective, Mma Makutsi,
whose main claim to fame until recently was her exemplary grade in the final
examinations at the Botswana Secretarial College. She is now engaged to a man
named Phuti who owns a furniture store and is thus a man of considerable
importance and station. Makutsi is a woman with aspirations, having been born
with nothing. The main sticking point in their engagement is the dowry—how many
cattle will be offered in exchange for her hand.
Mma Ramotswe has a new client. Mma Sebina hires her to find out who her real
parents were after the death of her adoptive mother. An important issues, for
sure, but not the stakes one usually associates with mystery novels. Many of Mma
Ramotswe's cases involve tracking people down, and much of her work is done with
a phone directory. Finding houses in Botswana isn't an exact science. They are
numbered with survey references, when they're numbered at all. Often she is
hired to deliver good news, such as an inheritance of three trucks and a taxi.
Not having family is a rarity in Botswana, so Mma Ramotswe considers finding
out to whom Mma Sebina belongs an important assignment. She takes her trusty
white van to the neighboring town to discover what people remember of Sebina's
parents. Her van is making an unusual noise that she has been consciously
ignoring, though she is quick to point out a similar defect in her husband's
vehicle. It's a case of the shoemaker's children going barefoot, and a nice
Mma Ramotswe's investigation is hampered by gossip and faulty memories, and
perhaps by lies. Her search for the author of the poison pen letters also
takes a bad turn when it seems like one of her husband's employees might be
involved. There are other complications upsetting the daily lives of the members
of the agency. Makutsi and her fiancÚ's purchase of a bed sets into motion a
chain of events made worse by rain and white lies.
Part of the charm of this novel is learning about the culture. People don't
die, they "become late." Deceased ancestors are waiting on the other
side at the time of reckoning. Trees in
Botswana are valued for their shade against the constant heat. In one scene,
flying ants materialize after a rare and much-needed rainstorm. Readers might
worry that this is an omen of impending disaster. Insects ravaging the crops.
Instead, their appearance is treated with delight by the children, who pluck the
ants from the air, strip off the wings and eat them, as if it's the most
natural thing in the world to do. Apparently they taste "peanut
Not all of the complications in Mma Ramotswe and Matekoni's lives are
trivial. Their foster daughter is in a wheelchair because of a congenital
disease. Matekoni fixes the car of a new doctor who raises the specter of hope
that she might walk again. If she could, it would be a miracle. But, as Dr.
Mwata tells Matekoni, miracles are not free and this one costs two years of
Matekoni's salary and a weeklong trip to Johannesburg with no guarantees of
Mma Romotswe starts out to find Sebina's family and turns
up something completely different. None of the situations posed by the book turn out as expected, and the way
Mma Ramotswe handles the poison letter is as indicative of her character as the
way she responds to the fragile possibilities Dr. Mwata raises. The book could
easily have turned saccharine, but Smith pulls meaningful lessons out of each
A thoroughly charming crime novel.
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