‘I don’t like writing about confrontation and murders’: Alexander McCall Smith keeping things light in latest mystery book
In a genre known for murders and grittiness, Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series remains a constant source of cozy mysteries
SALT LAKE CITY — In a genre known for murders and grittiness, Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series remains a constant source of cozy mysteries.
And that’s by design.
“I don’t like writing about confrontation and murders. That’s a convention in mystery fiction. There’s a role for that, but that’s not this,” McCall Smith told the Deseret News from his United Kingdom home. “In a sense, (the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’) is about people and their problems, not crime.”
McCall Smith will read from, discuss and sign “To the Land of Long Lost Friends” — the 20th and latest novel in the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series — in Salt Lake City on Oct. 29. In this installment, McCall Smith’s beloved Botswanan heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, uses her detective skills to help a childhood friend. Meanwhile, her longtime assistant, Mma Makutsi, teams up with apprentice detective Charlie to solve a surprisingly complicated case about a client’s husband acting suspiciously. Charlie has his hands full, too — he’s engaged to his girlfriend and he has to decide whether to take a sketchy second job in order to pay her high bride price.
As with the other books in the series, “To the Land of Long Lost Friends” is heavy on mysteries but light on violence. The story has stakes, but not of the life-or-death kind. Mma Ramotswe is more of an auntie solving problems than a grizzled investigator, McCall Smith said.
”The world can be a place of suffering and conflict, but that’s not the only part of the world. There’s another part of the world where people are good to each other and kind to each other,” he said. “The danger is that we become so accustomed to entertaining ourselves with violence that we think that’s reality. It’s not. It’s a tiny part of reality. Most people live their lives in a way that precludes that.”
After more than 20 years of writing the series, McCall Smith said he has less trouble than ever finding new plots.
”When you write series books, I think you get used to the characters, and their lives just continue under your eyes, so to speak, so I never have a problem finding things for them to do. It just seems to happen. (The characters) suggest the storyline, not the other way around,” he said. “After a while you get to know their characteristics, and you get to the point where you can more or less hear them. ... I never have any trouble thinking about what Mma Ramotswe is thinking because it’s so clear in my mind.”
The phenomenon is also true of his five other cozy mystery series, including the “44 Scotland Street” and “The Sunday Philosophy Club” series. But sometimes, McCall Smith also gets ideas from readers he meets at his signings and other events around the world.
“Sometimes people come up with really rather nice ideas about what the characters might do, and that’s always welcome — if it’s a good idea, I ask if I can use that. I quite enjoy that. And then there are some characters in my books of which people disapprove,” he said, noting that one character in his “44 Scotland Street” series was so unpopular that one woman suggested “unpleasant things” happen to him.
Meeting readers and fans is one of McCall Smith’s favorite parts of being an author. In addition to frequent touring and book signings — before starting his North American tour that stops in Utah, McCall Smith toured and signed across Europe; after getting back from the U.S., he’ll head to India — the author has led groups on weeklong tours through Botswana, where the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series is set.
McCall Smith, who was raised in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), has a love of Botswana and loves sharing it with fans through the unique characters he brings to life.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It’s like sharing friends in common — we all feel like we have the characters in the books as friends.”
And as McCall Smith writes and travels, hearing about the positive effects his books and characters have on readers continues to drive and gratify him.
“I listen to readers and try to understand everybody. I get some very moving letters from readers,” he said, adding that many of the letters and comments are about Mma Ramotswe. “If someone’s been moved by a literary figure, it makes it all worth it.”
If you go ...
What: Alexander McCall Smith signing and reading from “To the Land of Long Lost Friends”
When: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 7 p.m.
Where: Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts, 843 Lincoln St.
How much: $29
Note: A copy of “To the Land of Long Lost Friends” is included in the price of the ticket.