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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 foster children.

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 character touch.

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 buttery."

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 success.

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 thread's resolution. 

A thoroughly charming crime novel.


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