The Heart Of Lightness

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Alexander McCall Smith has a laugh that could charm a hissing cobra, and he's about to let loose with one now.

Slumped diagonally across a stiff hotel armchair, the Scottish author of the six wildly successful novels in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series -- and of much, much more, but we'll get to that -- is expanding on a story about a psychiatrist who said he'd been prescribing the books to depressed patients, with good results.

"I don't know whether they got that plus Prozac," McCall Smith says, starting to grin. Then: "You can imagine the control group. One group would get the book and the other one would get blank pages. The placebo reading group!"

The laugh that follows sends his voice up nearly an octave. His whole body shakes, rumpling his coat and skewing his tie. It's not the greatest joke you've ever heard, perhaps, but McCall Smith's good humor is irresistible -- and surely a factor in his books' success.

The rest of the formula is something of a mystery, though. Indeed, the question that prompted the psychiatrist story is one that seems almost rude to ask:

How is it that these quirky, slow-paced, mild-mannered entertainments -- which are not really detective stories, despite the series title -- have acquired millions of readers around the world?

They're set in Botswana. (Quick: find it on the map.) Their heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is a woman of "traditional build" (she's fat) who shuns violence, lacks interest in sex and appears to spend as much time sipping bush tea as she does solving clients' problems. Not the normal ingredients to send books flying off airport racks.

In the conversation that follows, a variety of possible reasons for the success of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" will emerge. But McCall Smith, once his laughter subsides, quickly tosses out a central one.

The books are "portrayals of people in whom generosity of spirit is very strong," he says.

"So there's a bit of novelty in that."

We don't forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are.

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