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While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

‘Women are the ones who know what’s going on’, she said quietly. ‘They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?’

There are days when I feel very grateful for the opportunity I have been given with this challenge. It has forced me to broaden my choice of reading, introduced me to writers I would not otherwise have encountered. This is one such example.

Alexander McCall Smith is an Edinburgh-based author, who came to writing from a successful career as Professor of Medical Law. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency he exchanges his Caledonian surroundings for the exotic locale of Botswana, with its dusty roads, diamond trade and the Kalahari desert and in Precious Ramotswe, female detective, he has created a quick-witted rival to Philip Marlowe.

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is occasionally episodic, with chapters standing in for individual cases, or short stories. Precious inherited her father’s livestock when he died and used the money from the sale of the cattle to set up her own detective agency. After a slow start she soon discovers her gentle humour, observant nature and kindness place her in high demand. While the police are all too ready to barge in and ‘solve’ cases by bringing them to the quickest end. Precious takes her time, offers her clients red bush tea, stares at the ceiling and comes to the best possible outcome.

There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.

McCall Smith returns the detective novel to an earlier format, in having the private eye take the moral view on each case, which is not necessarily the same as the legal view. For one the law is not always on the side of the women of Botswana, with unscrupulous men taking advantage of tradition to mistreat their wives, or daughters when it suits them. Precious refers to herself as a modern woman. She has suffered much hardship in her life, much heartbreak and has learned that men can lie quite easily when they wish. Sometimes it is easier for the police, or doctors, or lawyers to look the other way when a woman is in need.

While the book is episodic, with Precious dealing with missing person cases, as well as a stolen car and the wandering eyes of husbands. It is the kidnapping of a child though, with the suspected involvement of witchcraft, that becomes a case that she cannot solve, lying at the heart of the novel. She is forced to turn down the traumatized parents when they come to her for help, as she can see no possible way of returning their child to them. Plus, though it is a taboo subject, if witchcraft is involved, the child is almost certainly already dead. However, Precious never stops thinking about the missing boy. She is haunted by the memory of her own child, who was lost to her due to an abusive relationship. When she discovers that the kidnapped boy’s fate is tied up with powerful and dangerous men, who could just as easily buy off the police if need be, the stage is set for a poignant and bittersweet coda.

McCall Smith writes with a generous simplicity. This is most pronounced in the chapter relating to Precious’ father and his experiences working in the South African diamond mines. The hardships of the men underground are described in a disinterested manner, which makes the stories of these miners all the more powerful. They tell themselves that they will each be eventually ‘swallowed’ by the mine, whether it be by death from rock collapse, or the choking of their lungs years later. There is a warmth and gentleness to the writing, reflected in Precious’ own personality. While she observes men hurting others, cheating and stealing, she does not give in to despair. Instead she sets up her detective agency to make a difference.

This is a wonderfully hopeful and engaging novel. I plan on reading the rest of the series when I get a chance. Recommended.

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