Books: Crime Writer Makes Readers Better People; Tears of the Giraffe, by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus Paperback, Pounds 6.99)

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Peter Bacon

At a recent crime writers' conference, the Scottish professor of medical law responsible for putting the gentle detective story back in the bestseller lists, observed that, as there was very little actual crime in his books, perhaps it had been a mistake to invite him to the conference in the first place.

That shows Alexander McCall Smith's wry and gentle humour, as well as drawing attention to how different his books are from many of the increasingly gritty and lurid ones gathered together on the crime shelves in your local bookshop.

Tears Of The Giraffe is the second in McCall Smith's series about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency and, as she will both proudly reveal to anyone who asks, the only female private detective in Botswana.

Although it is not McCall Smith's latest book (there are two further tales) this and its predecessor, simply entitled The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency, have recently been taken up by a big publishing house and are getting a big promotional push -one they well and truly deserve.

At the beginning of this second story, Mma Ramotswe, as she is known, even to her new fiance Mr J L B Matekoni, is visited by an American woman whose son disappeared years before in the bush not far from Gaberone, Botswana's capital city.

A missing person, a slightly strange alternative society living in a rural commune, and an American boy at the mercy of harsh and inhospitable Africa -in the hands of many an author with a vivid imagination and an eye on sales potential, this would have developed along evil witchcraft lines.

Although there are a couple of moderately nasty pieces of work along the way, Precious Ramotswe's search for the truth does not involve much more than drinking cups of tea and listening to the views and stories of those involved. And these stories are rarely remarkable, revealing more about normal human nature than the extremes of inhuman debauchery.

Meanwhile, away from the primary storyline, there is the attempted treachery of a disaffected cleaning lady, the adoption of two orphans, and the promotion of a secretary to second detective (although tea-making duties are still included in the job description, of course). …