By Alexander McCall Smith
Whenever a new book in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is released, it’s an occasion to retreat to our favorite reading place for an uninterrupted afternoon of enjoyment with our old friends who remind us of the important things in life. Alexander McCall Smith’s 18th offering in this series, The House of Unexpected Sisters, is every bit as insightful and meaningful as its predecessors. Smith has maintained his high standards throughout this entire series, and #18 does not disappoint.
Although he is currently a Professor of Medical Law in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana,” according to his Amazon biography. This series takes place in Botswana, and it is obvious that he has a deep love for the country, culture, and people of that nation. In fact, “the old Botswana morality, the kindness that lay at the heart of that,” (p. 190) and respect for others constitute the basis for this series.
The detective at the heart of this series is Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” Botswanan woman, and owner of the Agency. Her idea to start such an unusual business in the city of Gaborone, Botswana, typifies her unusual approach to solving her cases. She is also an astute observer of human nature, particularly Botswanan human nature. She uses her creative mind and innately gentle nature in solving whatever odd or confounding cases come to the Agency. Her talent is in finding the correct solution to each case after gathering the facts, as she knows things are not always as they appear to be. She then seeks a solution that will be the best outcome for all involved.
This book, like the ones before it, presents several different cases or situations for Precious and her eccentric staff to resolve. Sometimes “cases” are merely favors for friends or family, with no monetary payment involved. Precious is a person for whom “payment” can mean bringing justice to an unjust situation, and her first case does just that. Charity, a widow with children to support, has been fired from her job at an office furniture store for supposedly being rude to a customer. Precious and her staff dig into the case to find the real reason for the firing. They find that this is one of the cases where the truth is not what it appears to be, and orchestrate a just correction.
In this book, Precious faces two issues of a personal nature. Her first husband, an abusive musician and probably the last person on earth she wants to see, has been sighted in town. While he makes no attempt to visit her (she made it clear in the past that she wants nothing to do with him), the information causes her to dread that he might contact her and will want something from her. Readers who remember Note from previous books will be surprised to learn how he has changed.
The second issue speaks to this book’s title. Precious thinks she has been an only child for all of her 42 years, and that she knows all of the few people who share the Ramotswe last name. However, a visit with a woman in her hometown reveals that this may not be true. She is given a newspaper clipping with a photo of 3 nurses, one of whom has her same last name. Naturally she must discover if they are related, and finds they are indeed half-sisters! Instead of feeling joy, she feels shock and dismay that her late father, whom she has revered and deeply loved for her entire life, seems to have fathered a child with another woman while he was married to her mother. That’s the only conclusion she can draw based on the information she has…but is it correct? If it is true, it would be completely out of character for the man she knew. Her world is suddenly shaken by what seems to be his betrayal.
I won’t spoil it and give away the answer (or why the title uses the plural “sisters”), but readers of this series can trust that the resolution is a good one for all concerned. The only question is HOW it is resolved, and readers will not be disappointed. As always, Smith cleverly manages to show us how a good resolution to one issue helps bring about the same for the remaining ones. In setting Precious’s world right, he does the same for his readers.