Alexander Mccall Smith is fond of a fat--make that traditionally built--woman named Precious. Their dalliance began as many a relationship has, during a holiday in France. On a trip in 1996, McCall Smith scribbled a few lines of a short story, which grew into a novel and then into a series chronicling the life of Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. Five books into the series, he has no intention of breaking it off. "To say goodbye now would be like leaving in the middle of a conversation," the Zimbabwean-born Scot says. "Rather rude."
And McCall Smith, 55, is almost never rude. That may be why he has become an object of devotion--especially among traditionally built ladies--worldwide. He is a particular favorite among literary societies and has met with dozens of them on his U.S. promotional tour for The Full Cupboard of Life (Pantheon; 198 pages), the most recent Ramotswe book, out this week. "I do 150 ladies at a time, at lunch," he says of gatherings he visited in Palm Springs, Calif.; Palm Beach, Fla.; and Las Vegas, to name a few. "Did you even know there was a Las Vegas literary society?" he asks, unleashing his delighted, high-pitched laugh.
Delight is the slightly rumpled, bow-tied McCall Smith's operative mode. His books--The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls and The Kalahari Typing School for Men--which detail the quiet and quirky adventures of Botswanan sleuth Mma (pronounced Ma, the most correct way of addressing women in Botswana) Ramotswe, have become international word-of-mouth hits, sold millions and been translated into 26 languages, partly because of their sheer cheerfulness.
"People don't usually see this side of Africa," McCall Smith says by way of explaining the books' success. "They just see war, famine and oppression." In his Botswana, people go about their business with good humor and goodwill, earnestly meeting the quotidian challenges common to every country. The books also "make a moral point about the importance of courtesy, of trying to keep traditional ways," says the author. Thus Ramotswe's fiance is always referred to as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and his place of work by its full name, the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. AIDS, on the other hand, rife in that part of Africa, is never mentioned by name (most Botswanans "won't use it either," McCall Smith says), although it's acknowledged touchingly in the books. Their prose is gentle, easing the reader through Ramotswe's world of crimes of virtue and social misdemeanors. "I'm fed up with gritty, in-your-face stuff," says McCall Smith. "I don't like to read too much about the distressing aspects of life."
Cupboard finds Ramotswe on the case of a successful businesswoman who wants to know whether her suitors are after her for love or money. As in all the other books, McCall Smith draws heavily on his happy childhood years in what was then Rhodesia. He praises the "quiet decency" of Botswana, which lies just southwest of Zimbabwe and which McCall Smith, whose day job is teaching medical law at the University of Edinburgh, got to know while helping set up the law school in Gaborone in the early '80s. "In Botswana, even in the small transactions of life, people pay attention to each other," he says.