Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Go To
Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is a series of 23 books, written by Alexander McCall Smith, involving Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's first female detective and therefore "number one." The series started in 1998 and is still ongoing as of 2022, releasing one book roughly every year.

The books have been adapted for television by the BBC in conjunction with HBO, with a two-hour pilot in 2008 followed by a six-part Sunday Evening Drama Series in 2009, based on the first ten books. The pilot was the last work of director Anthony Minghella before his death in 2008. The series was canceled after its first season.

There has also been a radio adaptation.

    Books in the series so far 
  1. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (1998)
  2. Tears of the Giraffe (2000)
  3. Morality for Beautiful Girls (2001)
  4. The Kalahari Typing School for Men (2002)
  5. The Full Cupboard of Life (2004)
  6. In The Company of Cheerful Ladies (2004 – also known as The Night-Time Dancer)
  7. Blue Shoes and Happiness (2006)
  8. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive (2007)
  9. The Miracle at Speedy Motors (2008)
  10. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (2009)
  11. The Double Comfort Safari Club (2010)
  12. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (2011)
  13. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (2012)
  14. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013)
  15. The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe (2014)
  16. The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015)
  17. Precious and Grace (2016)
  18. The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017)
  19. The Colors of All the Cattle (2018)
  20. To the Land of Long Lost Friends (2019)
  21. How to Raise an Elephant (2020)
  22. The Joy and Light Bus Company (2021)
  23. A Song of Comfortable Chairs (2022)

This series contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Three hospital deaths were caused by the cleaning lady unplugging the ventilator to run the floor buffer. The administrator knew all along, but asks Mma Ramotswe not to say anything as the victims were already old and without kin, and doesn't want to burden the cleaning lady with that knowledge.
  • Aerith and Bob: Many characters have English first names with Setswana last names, such as our heroines Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi.
  • Alpha Bitch: Violet Sephotho and Grace Makutsi's first interaction at the college involved Violet telling Grace to come talk to her Girl Posse... so Violet could make fun of Grace's clothes. She only gets worse from there.
  • Always Someone Better: Mma Maktusi learns someone passed the secretarial examination with 98%. Her response is to help pay for her tuition.
  • All Women Love Shoes: While Mma Ramotswe is content with her own shoes, Mma Makutsi has enough love for shoes for the two of them. Even if they're too small for her.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first few chapters of the first book are from the perspective of Precious' late father, Obed Ramotswe.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Can come across like this to native English speakers. It seems that everyone in Botswana speaks stilted, formal, old-fashioned, and rather pompous English. Truth in Television, by most accounts.
  • Artifact Title: Repeatedly subverted: Mma Ramostwe and Makutsi never consider adding any male staff on payroll as it would no longer be the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
  • Artificial Limbs: Phuti loses a foot in a car accident, but this doesn't bother him overmuch as he gets a replacement quickly.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Subverted with Charlie: His first reaction on learning he's the father of twins is to run like hell (fortunately for everyone involved, it turns out he isn't the father). When Mma Makutsi has her baby, he goes into adoring big-brother mode... but this dies down when she no longer needs to bring the baby to the agency.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: A woman comes to Mma Ramotswe trying to catch proof of her husband's womanizing ways. The detective does this in the most convenient way possible: taking a photo of the two of them together. The client goes ballistic.
  • Black Jezebel Stereotype: Zigzagged, in that while Violet Sephotho is portrayed negatively as a Gold Digger using her charms to avoid having to work, the fact that she's black plays no part in it since, well, everyone else is black.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Subverted when Clovis Andersen (author of Mma Ramotswe's go-to book The Principles of Detection) shows up in The Limpopo Academy of Detection: he keeps downplaying his achievements and is surprised that they keep quoting the book at him (which is taken for modesty), but he proves instrumental in solving the case by suggesting alternate leads the local detectives would never have imagined. At the end he freely admits he's nowhere near the Great Detective she thinks him to be, his book had to be self-published (and it only sold 30 copies out of 200 printed), and he has no idea how one copy ended up in Africa of all places, but she waves it away, demonstrating the difference he made (via her) in people's lives.
    • Mma Ramotswe discovers she has a half-sister... meaning her father, who throughout the series was presented as a paragon of masculine virtue by literally every single person who'd ever met him, cheated on her mother, who'd died shortly after Precious was born. Fortunately it turns out the birthdates were reported wrong, and she's younger than Precious.
  • Brother–Sister Incest:
    • Subverted: After making a mistake in introducing a man to her client as her long-lost brother (Mma Potokwane had remembered the wrong orphan, the actual brother had died in childhood), Mma Ramotswe learns the client is overjoyed: she says Mma Ramotswe found her a husband rather than a brother.
    • Played straight in another, where a dead man's nephew turns out to also be his son.
  • Celibate Hero: Mma Ramotswe was married once, but it turned out poorly for her. Since then, she has sworn off men and was perfectly happy being a single lady (despite several men pressing her for marriage). Until she said yes to Mr. J. L. B Matekoni.
  • Closet Geek: Mma Makutsi is a fan of superhero movies, though Mma Ramotswe thinks they're ridiculous.
  • Comic-Book Time: Very little marks the world moving on apart from the occasional mention of cell phones or Mr. JLB Matekoni's complaining about the ever-increasing amount of electronics in modern cars that he doesn't know how to fix. And then suddenly there's a mention of cloud computing and file storage (though Mma Ramotswe's office still very much uses paper).
  • Cool Car: Averted: While BMWs are repeatedly mentioned as being the mark of a successful person, Mr. JLB Matekoni doesn't like them due to the excessive electronics inside which he knows nothing about.
  • Crooked Contractor: The man Phuti hired to build his house is competent and charismatic, unfortunately he's also building himself a house and getting Phuti to foot the bill for the bricks.
  • Darkest Africa: Averted big time. Botswana is portrayed as a modern, fairly prosperous nation, albeit one still struggling with the AIDS crisis and a great deal of generational Culture Clash.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: AIDS is never directly referred to by name but rather "the infection" or "the slim disease".
  • Domestic Abuse: Precious' ex-husband, jazz musician Note Mokoti, beat her so hard that she miscarried. Mma Ramotswe notes that this is a particularly common problem where she lives.
  • Dude Magnet: Mma Ramotswe has no issues in the men department, having at least two men propose to her in the first book.
  • Full-Name Basis: Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is always referred to, and addressed, in this way, including by his wife and children.
  • Gold Digger: As soon as a rich man's mistress is mentioned, there's a good chance Violet Sephotho's name will appear.
  • Good Old Ways: The old Botswana morality. Mma Ramotswe frequently bemoans the lack of it, though she picks and chooses the parts she likes. She has very modern ideas of gender and sexuality, but her ideas seem to be grounded in her belief in respecting everyone. She hates most modern technology and refuses to use computers and cellular telephones.
  • Henpecked Husband:
    • Most husbands seen in the series don't consider themselves henpecked, only marveling that their wives consistently manage to get their way even after being told "no".
    • One man snapped one day and ran away as fast as he could... only to be brought down with a rugby tackle by his wife, in front of a group of schoolchildren.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Mma Ramotswe is sometimes exasperated by Mma Potokwane shanghaing her husband into maintaining mechanical equipment long past its expiration date... while doing everything in her power to keep him from declaring that her van needs replacing. Not to mention throwing out his clothes despite their still being wearable.
    • Mma Makutsi dislikes the Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal trope, complaining about mothers being blind to their children's thoughts. Her husband unwisely asks if this applies to their son, and she just stares at him, asking "What faults?"
  • Innocently Insensitive: People all over Botswana will call Mma Ramotswe "fat" or a "fatty" to her face. Precious doesn't seem to mind though, since being fat isn't considered a slight to the traditionally-built African woman.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • In the books, Mma Ramotswe always refers to herself as "traditionally built", especially if the person she's talking to falters just before saying "fat" or "heavy".
    • No one is ever dead, only "is late". It's explained the "dead" is reserved for dead vehicles and objects, while late people are still with the living.
    • AIDS is never named, only called "the sickness".
  • Irony: The motto of the Botswana Secretarial College as it appears on the buildings is "Be Acurate". Mma Makutsi pointed this out to them, but they've yet to fix the mistake.
  • Little Old Lady Investigates: Precious Ramotswe is not old, and definitely not little. The premise is mostly similar though.
  • The Load: Mr. JLB Matekoni's apprentice mechanics are anything but competent no matter how much time he spends to teach them something, although Fanwell eventually gets his certification.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Mma Makutsi's shoes talk to her. This could be explained as her imagining things, except sometimes Mma Ramotswe hears them too.
  • Men Are Childish: Mma Ramotswe and Makutsi tend to have this view of men (not helped by witnessing the very adolescent behavior of the twenty-year-old Charlie almost every day), thinking only of girls and football (or mechanical parts in the case of Mr. JLB Matekoni).
  • Melting-Pot Nomenclature: Grace and Phuti's son is named Itumaleng Clovis Radiphuti (after Clovis Andersen, the detective whose book is the agency's bible).
  • Mistaken for Prostitute: Mma Ramotswe is accosted by a man while on stakeout near a bar. She tells him she knows his wife and he promptly gets the hell out of there, insisting he wasn't going near the bar, which are a blight on Botswana.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Although Violet Sephotho is never actually described in detail apart from being "very glamorous" (the viewpoint characters being less than thrilled that she exists), the fact that she keeps finding men to pay for her lifestyle (and Charlie's admiring reaction when he runs into her) marks her as one.
  • The Nameless: Mr. JLB Matekoni has two apprentices: Charlie and the younger one, "whose name no one ever used" until several books later. It's Fanwell.
  • Nice Guy: J.L.B. Matekoni is good-natured and mild-mannered almost to a fault. Mma Potokwane ruthlessly takes advantage of this (and to be fair, bribes him with very good fruitcake) to get him to carry out maintenance and repairs on all sorts of broken-down machinery running at the orphanage.
  • Orphanage of Love: Mma Potokwane's orphan farm. She actually makes sure that the one thing the children leave is a memory of a place where they were loved.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency happens to be the best (and only) female detective agency in Botswana.
  • Place Worse Than Death: When musing about heaven and hell, Mma Ramotswe believes the second one must look something like Nigeria.
  • Private Detective:
  • Quack Doctor: One of the cases involves a general physician who sometimes seems to be a very good doctor, and sometimes acts like he has no idea what he's doing. The solution to the mystery is that the actual doctor and his identical twin brother (who definitely isn't a doctor) are running two doctor's offices in different cities, simultaneously—in order to make twice as much money. They switch between the offices at regular intervals, so at any visit there's a 50% chance you'll be seen by the quack instead.
  • Rags to Riches: Grace Makutsi starts out as a highly-qualified but unemployed secretary coming from a nowhere village and having to scrape every last bit of cash she could to get by as a student. Then she gets married to the owner of a successful furniture store, and also manages to open a restaurant she then owns shares in.
  • Raised by Wolves: In Morality For Beautiful Girls, a boy is found in the desert who cannot talk. He is sent to the orphan farm run by Mma Potokwane, who asks Mma Ramotswe to investigate. Based on the fact that the boy acts more like an animal and hasn't grasped the concept of language, plus the fact that he smelt of lion when he was found, they conclude that he was raised by lions, but they decide to keep him at the farm because he has shown progress in learning how to talk.
  • Running Gag:
    • Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's full name. Mma Ramotswe knows what it is, but no one else does. John Limpopo Basil. He doesn't like the "Basil".
    • Did you know Mma Makutsi scored ninety-seven percent in her exam at the Botswana Secretarial College? It will come up once per book if not once per scene involving her.
  • Same Surname Means Related: A Lily Sephotho dating two men at the same time is assumed to be the mother of Violet Sephotho due to the similar name and behavior. She turns out to be unrelated (and dating a third man).
  • Sassy Secretary: Mma Makutsi will not hesitate to point out that she got 97% on her exams at the Botswana Secretarial College, and is very offended at being asked to work in conditions that do not meet her exacting standards. She also joins in on conversations between Mma Ramotswe and her client, which doesn't always go over well.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Noted to be a nationwide problem at various points.
    • Subverted in one case, where a hospital administrator is distant cousins with the criminal, but is surprised that Mma Ramotswe thinks that's why he wants her to abandon the investigation, instead pointing out that it would benefit no one to reveal the criminal's identity.
    • Mma Makutsi's restaurant fails when it turns out the lawyer she hired to handle buying the land got her to hire his brother (a drunkard who can't cook to save his life) as chef, his brother's surly son as waiter and the son's wife as a waitress. They were only able to keep up the charade for one meal, and even then it was an aunt of theirs that did the actual cooking.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Not so much "secret" as rarely mentioned: the agency actually doesn't make Mma Ramotswe that much money, she stays solvent mostly thanks to the fine herd of cattle inherited from her father. Many characters deal with a sudden loss of money by resigning themselves to sell their own cattle.
  • Sex Sells: Violet Sephotho manages to sell four beds on her first day by suggesting that if the (male) client buys it, she'll be happy to help him test it out.
  • Sexy Secretary: Mma Makutsi averts this. She only makes a half-decent stab at Hot Librarian and says she doesn't like them. Her rival from the secretarial college however exploits this trope in order to get jobs despite getting half of Makutsi's score.
  • Sitcom Archnemesis: Violet Sephotho, who also attended the Botswana Secretarial College but didn't even get 50%, is loathed by Grace Makutsi for being a Brainless Beauty giving secretaries a bad name. Violet returns the sentiment with interest, especially after Mma Makutsi gets engaged to a rich and respected man whose awkwardness and stutter Violet had mocked.
  • The Slacker: J.L.B. Matekoni's apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, are strongly opposed to doing any work beyond what they absolutely have to, for all his attempts to teach them old-fashioned work ethics.
  • Status Quo Is God: For the most part, a book will end with the characters more or less in the same position as they started, with the exception of a few marriages, births, and amputations.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni writes one to the Minister of Education when he considers the general apathy of his two apprentices (when women aren't involved). Upon completing it, he realizes how pompous and old-fashioned it sounds.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Charlie thinks up a way to get a criminal to rescind his testimony by making him think Mma Ramotswe is a Professional Killer who will silence him at the first sign of non-cooperation at the trial. Mma Ramotswe has to spell out that threatening a witness is a very serious crime, even when done with the best of intentions.
  • Supreme Chef: Cooking by the female characters is usually described in glowing terms.
  • Token White: Largely averted. There are several white people - Dr. Moffat, for instance - but they are treated no differently than the Batswana.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Certain incidents of strange names are mentioned, like a child named for his big ears, or a Mr. Voetsek (Afrikaans for "fuck off"), and even one unfortunate soul named "Look out, the police have arrived".
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Precious is willing to wait in the dark with a rifle for a man-eating crocodile, but flees her van when she thinks a deadly snake is inside, until a man comes along and sorts out the problem for her. That doesn't stop her from taking credit for killing the snake when she wants to impress an arrogant attorney later on.
  • Why Do You Keep Changing Jobs?: Violet Sephotho continuously reappears in the protagonists' lives in an antagonistic capacity, be it running a secretarial agency, a bed saleswoman, a dress-shop owner, running for office, a restaurant critic, opening a fraudulent secretarial college...
  • Would Hurt a Child: The process of making muti (traditional medicine) involves the bones of children, and looking for a boy kidnapped for this purpose is one of Mma Ramotswe's first cases.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Mr. JLB Matekoni only refers to his wife by first name in extreme circumstances.

The TV adaptations add examples of:

  • Ascended Extra: Cephas Buthulezi is only around for a few scenes in one book. He is shifty but never really causes any trouble. In the television series, he is present in two episodes and is nothing short of malicious to Mme. Ramotswe.
  • Canon Foreigner: The series adds a new major character in B.K., the Camp Gay owner of the Last Chance Hair Saloon who is a close friend of Mmi Ramotswe.
  • Character Development: Grace Makutsi gradually goes from being a secretary to learning detective skills and solving cases on her own.
  • Funny Background Event: In the pilot, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi leaving work at the end of the day, not noticing that an unhappy client has graffitied their "No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" sign.
  • Knight of Cerebus / Vile Villain, Saccharine Show: Idris Elba's character in the pilot is notable for being far scarier than most of the antagonists in the show, which, like the books, is fairly lighthearted and low-stakes.
  • Large Ham: David Oyelowo in the pilot, Patterson Joseph as a rival detective.
  • Meta Guy: B.K. loves detective fiction and will frequently comment on how the current case reflects tropes that he's seen in books and television. In just one example, he prepares for a stakeout with JLB by purchasing the traditional snacks of bush tea and bloodworms, then jokes that they are just like "real" detectives getting doughnuts and coffee.
  • Scenery Porn: Shot on location in Botswana, the landscape shots will show anyone why Mma Ramotswe loves her country.
  • Token White: Completely averted, there being no white people in the series at all.
  • Took a Level in Badass: J.L.B. Matekoni in the season finale.

Alternative Title(s): The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency