Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith

[I read this novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before I knew what was going to happen in the second.]

18 January 2017
Chapters 1-9
The author, a middle-aged white man who spent many years in Botswana, writes these lightweight fictions about the country he clearly remembers with affection. He has a massive world-wide fan base, and I’m very happy for him. But whoever this book might be for, it isn’t for me.

This is the third in the long-running No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I read the first of them when it first appeared in the late 1990s, and that was enough for me. In it, McCall Smith creates not only the little world of life in Botswana’s small-scale capital city but also the narrative voice. It’s his own version of free indirect style: it’s third person, but the lives and experiences of the characters are presented in the highly formalised version of English of the middle classes, as spoken by Mme Precious Ramotswe and her circle. Characters are given their full names – her fiancé is always ‘Mr J L B Matekoni,’ just as she is always Mma Rometswe and her habitually capable secretary is Mma Makutsi – and Botswana, despite the known existence of far more developed countries, is a little paradise. Only in this one African country has there never been any corruption, only here are to be found the certainties that other countries seem somehow to have mislaid.

It reminds me, a little, of the Mapp and Lucia series, in which a different male author created a little bubble of innocence centred on opinionated women. Sure, there are jealousies and even real wrongdoing. But evil? It seems alien in paradise, somehow. Mma Rometswe even has to go to the bookseller who represents her unfailing fount of knowledge – he’s bound to be unfailing, obviously – in order to discover the existence of depression. Et in Arcadio Ego, apparently, because J L B Matekoni seems to be suffering from it. But there are differences between this and E F Benson’s series, which is set in a highly stylised version of Rye in Sussex between the wars. It’s easy – somehow, it even feels right – for a modern reader to laugh at the vanities and pretensions of the leisured middle class that Benson gently satirises. But what about the vanities and pretensions of Africans, as presented by a member of the former colonial power? McCall Smith’s creations are charming, willing to learn but essentially innocent. Really, they behave like intelligent twelve-year-olds, and I find this presentation of them unforgivably patronising.

But this isn’t about me, it’s about Morality for Beautiful Girls. (And, now I think of it, how tongue-in-cheek can a title be? Beautiful? Girls? What was I saying about twelve-year-olds?) It’s a detective novel, however lightweight, so some plot is needed. It takes its time, because there’s a lot of charming background stuff to establish (or re-establish – things clearly follow on from the second in the series). The main character is engaged to the owner of a garage, itself always given its full name whenever mentioned. Neither business is doing well, hers because she under-charges her clients and overpays her secretary in that charming way of hers, his because he isn’t really coping. She, capable twelve-year-old that she is, decides to take matters in hand. She doesn’t know how it will work, but how about moving her own office into the garage premises and installing her secretary as ‘acting manager’ while she’s there?

Yes, fine. In fact, obviously – because outcomes are always positive in the McCall Smith universe – Mma Makutsi is a brilliant manager. She sorts out the otherwise unsupervised apprentices, gets everything running smoothly, and even knows how to retain customers with little sweeteners if they have been displeased by the previous delays. But what impresses the apprentices is her mechanical genius. Not only does she guess that the battery of one car is flat, she also diagnoses and fixes the electrical fault in another: it was mice nesting behind the dashboard. How we laughed.

Meanwhile, approximately four plot-threads are set up. First, two health issues. One is that depression being suffered by Mr J L B Whatever, which the main character routinely talks of as her fiancé’s ‘illness.’ (Presumably, she’s too innocent to know that there are taboos surrounding mental health issues. Perhaps there are no such taboos in McCall’s version of Botswana. Sigh.) The other is the secretary’s brother, secreted in her apartment because he is dying of some wasting disease. The main character thinks she might have caught a glimpse of somebody from outside, but can’t be sure.

The other two threads create the mystery/thriller element. A feral child has been discovered out in the bush, unaccountably smelling of lions, and he has been placed in the ‘orphan farm’ often visited by the main character because her fiancé agreed to foster two of them at her house on Zebra Drive. (I’ve just checked whether there’s really a Zebra Drive in the capital – there isn’t – but a travel website declares that ‘It is a crying shame that so many visitors to Botswana … never set foot in Gaborone, the capital city and location of Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved detective stories about Precious Ramotswe.’ Just mentioning it – it seems a very particular sub-section of post-colonial tourism.) The feral boy refuses clothes, tearing with his teeth the shorts he has been given, and he speaks none of the languages that even university linguists have tried out on him – don’t let anyone ever call this version of Botswana backward. If Mma Rometswe has picked up on the clue about the smell of lions – which might be a red herring, of course – she isn’t mentioning it.

The other thread is to do with ‘the government man’ who gives one of the chapters its subtitle. He visits the detective agency in order to discover whether, as he says he suspects, his younger brother’s apparently gold-digging wife is trying to poison him. The main character is unimpressed by everything about the case – she later tells the secretary that they’ve only heard ‘the stupid story’, and they will need to hear another side – but the secretary has an idea. The government man is impressed by ‘this clever woman in glasses,’ and her idea for Mma Rometswe to be invited to the house in order to pick up information from the servants. (This is before the move to the garage, and seems to be McCall Smith’s way of establishing the secretary as a force to be reckoned with.)

And that’s nearly it. The main character muses on aspects of morality, at an appropriate level for a twelve-year-old. (I’ll stop saying that now.) The girl foster-child, rendered disabled by a crippling disease, tells her that her classmates are kind to her. Which is nice. But what about that feral boy? Unwanted infants are often left at the orphan farm, but what’s this six- or seven-year-old’s story? He, too, must once have been abandoned – which is not nice.

Finally, I need to check: is the government man the same one who was out in a camp in the bush, one of whose men found the feral boy? That took place in a stand-alone chapter – the only one not written wholly or mainly from the main character’s point of view, so it’s likely be important. Is there some sort of connection?

20 January
Chapters 10-19 – to the end
Why would anybody what to spend time on a novel which, with a few tweaks, would be suitable for a ten-year-old? Not that I would recommend it for any ten-year-old I’ve ever met – McCall Smith perpetuates a patronising view of Africa and Africans that I wouldn’t want any child to read about. They might grow up thinking things are really like this, that Africans have little lightbulb moments of realisation when injustices or prejudices suddenly become clear to them. Like, men are spoilt by their well-meaning but wrong-headed mothers, so they grow up expecting all women to serve them. Like, pretty secretaries get jobs more easily than more competent women who aren’t so pretty and that isn’t right. There are little life lessons too: maybe you don’t need to put your faith in discredited theories of criminality – the secretary decides for a time that they are only dismissed by other writers who are jealous – if your intuitions are as well-honed as hers and those of Mma Ramotswe. Am I the only one to find these little epiphanies embarrassing?

But I should deal with those plot threads, which are all resolved so easily it’s as though McCall Smith simply couldn’t be bothered with them. (There’s one that he doesn’t even mention again, clearly deciding that if this series is becoming a soap opera, the dying brother thread can be held over as a teaser until the next instalment.) J L B Whatshisname is helped by the unfailingly capable woman in charge of the orphan farm, who takes him to the doctor to get some magic pills, then takes him back to the orphan farm for what turns into some magic therapy. This turns out to tick off the lion-boy plot thread as well: the women, who both wonder if the boy really might be one of those mythical children brought up by animals, decide to leave it as a mystery because he’s getting on perfectly well with – guess. What good would it do the boy to be examined by scientists, who would no doubt do studies on him, taking him far away from the Africa he knows? He’s much better off spending time with the recovering Mr JLB, who tells him ‘the words for the things he saw about him; teaching him the words for his world, the words for Africa.’ (McCall Smith is so pleased with the cadences of this ringing sentence that ‘The Words of Africa’ becomes the subtitle of this final chapter.) We know it’s doing JLB good because, three lines from the end, he’s smiling for the first time in a long time. Is it because of the doctor’s magic pills? Or the environment provided for him by these two wise women, and by ‘Africa’? Pass me the sick-bucket.

It’s all like this, and I’m tempted to just stop and leave it there. But no, so… other threads. Actually, the only other one that carries over from the first half is the poisoning story, which turns out to be as stupid as the main character said it was. After taking up her invitation, she watches the suspects and finds nothing suspicious about them. She’s already met the father of the supposedly murderous wife – she and her secretary never, ever fail to meet up with the people they want to, and always find out absolutely everything they need – and he is far too nice a chap to have brought a killer into the world. The government man was either lying or simply revealing himself to be a terrible judge of character when he said this polite and contented man, a lowly clerk, was ambitious and scheming…. But her first proper meal at the family farm there does make her ill, and she is suspicious – until she finds out that everybody else was ill too. The truth, as she easily finds out, obviously – and I’m not making this up – is that the cook is unhappy and has simply been trying to make the meals taste bad. As if there aren’t a hundred ways a good cook, which he is, couldn’t fake incompetence.

She talks to everyone in the family, then confronts the government man in her own office. What comes next might be the single worst thing in the whole book, which is saying something. She presents her conclusions as a little homily – ‘I am going to tell you a story’ – but not before she has already threatened this man, powerful and confident enough to have made a bullying reference to a possible investigation if she didn’t do his bidding the first time they met, with ejection from her premises if he carries on being so rude. He apologises, and her story is about his own unhappy family and his role in making it so. He is ‘the first-born’ who, ‘as he became more powerful and well-known… became more and more arrogant.’ She carries on, and lets him know how wrong he’s been getting things for years. And instead of having her arrested, this powerful and arrogant man listens. Then, when she finishes, he leans forward and holds his head in his hands. ‘Do not be ashamed to cry, Rra,’ she says, ‘it is the way that things begin to get better.’ This, remember, is supposed to be a book written for adults.

There’s a new thread, equally preposterous. While the boss is away getting food poisoning, the secretary accepts the job of finding out which of the four remaining finalists in the Botswana competition of beauty and integrity can be trusted to be ‘a good girl.’ This gives McCall Smith the opportunity to let Mma Makutsi muse on the definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls, and how this differs from what people mean when using the same epithets for boys. Luckily for her, the novel she is in is written by somebody who isn’t interested in any plot nonsense, so she is able to solve it in the space of an afternoon. She interviews one contestant, a clever but vain girl, disliked by the other girls at the university who have told her where her room can be found. She wants to study her cranium, but doesn’t need to as her rudeness and disingenuousness are plain for all to see. But that leaves three others, and she hasn’t got all day. She is struggling – until she asks the girl-mad apprentice who is driving her around if he has met any of them. He looks at the list, and describes three of them (including, of course, the first) as ‘some of the best girls in town… big, excellent girls.’ So she can cross them off the list, because she knows exactly what sort of girl he is talking about. Which leaves one – who is so impossibly perfect even the idiot Mma Makutsi can’t be mistaken. My God.

Anything ese? There’s affectionate, cosy stuff about the climate of Botswana, and the importance of the rains, especially in these times when seasons appear to have become less predictable. There are tiny little references to the way that, perhaps, career paths in this country might not be as ideal as Mma Rometswe would like to think. But, aside from the arrogant government man that she has put back on the right track, the only mention of the unsavoury things that ambitious men get up to comes from the happily unambitious father of the (innocent) wife, and is forgotten as soon as things have moved on. And the thread of men’s treatment of women continues in that familiar tone of wide-eyed mock surprise.

Enough. For me, the cover manages to sum up everything I don’t like about it. It’s a pastiche African design in bright yellows, greens and earth colours by a white English artist who does a lot of work for the National Trust. There’s even a little lion family, with a sleeping black baby between them. And sales of this stuff are in the millions.