Two writers I much admire are simply breathtakingly good at making the most out of the locations their plot is set in. Alexander McCall Smith and Tarquin Hall write detective stories that embrace all the senses and if you haven’t read any of their stuff yet, I suggest you track down their books immediately, for you are in for a treat and a master class in writing.
Alexander McCall Smith’s series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is set in Botswana in Africa. His “traditionally built” lady detective Precious Ramotswe solves mostly mysteries rather than murder cases, but his books are so full of humour and humanity that the case in question becomes almost immaterial. Before sitting down with one of his books, get a travel guide of beautiful Botswana and follow Precious Ramotswe’s trips around her beloved homeland by leafing through searing photographs of deserts and animal-filled national parks. Can’t you hear those lions roar?
Imagine sitting next to Precious in her tiny white van, the suspension groaning under her traditionally built person and red dust settling on everything. Feeling thirsty yet?
Water topics and talk of water is ever present throughout the book. In a dry country, water is the most precious commodity. Everything depends on it and it has shaped the way in which people see their fellow man, their country and the rest of the world.
The sounds of gentle cow herds grazing in the shade under African skies, their bells penetrating the early mist, will stay with you for a long time to come, as will the cooking smells of pumpkin, beef and green beans, the laughter and songs of children growing up in an orphanage, and the noise and smell generated by Speedy Motors Repair Garage and the best car mechanic of Botswana. Full of colour, smells, temperatures, beverages and food, McCall Smith’s books are a tonic for the soul and utterly addictive.
This may be a fictional Botswana that never existed in this form, but I still dream of going there one day. These are not books about Africa’s poverty, dictatorships or corruption. These are books about real people, their hopes and dreams, their achievements and their shortcomings.
Detecting your way round Indian cuisine
Writer and journalist Tarquin Hall’s detective Vish Puri is middle-aged and overweight, a little hen-pecked by his wife and mother. Not that this would stop Vis from having an ego equalling the size of India itself. Set mostly in Delhi, the stories are full of the sounds, colours and tastes of India’s many different regions and peoples. A keen observer of the ridiculous, Tarquin Hall’s writing often made me laugh out loud.
After every chapter I could practically detect the scent of jasmine, tamarind, saffron, ginger, coriander, curry and fried butter chicken in my room. Every purchase of this book should come with a voucher for the nearest Indian take-away, for your belly will start grumbling after every page Tarquin’s filled with mouth-watering delicious dishes and puzzling clues.
No case gets solved unless Vish Puri’s belly has been satisfied. No suspect is interviewed without a steaming dish arriving on the table between detective and suspect first. His fiercest rival is not another detective or even the police, no, it’s his very own Mummy-ji, whose interest and success in crime solving drives Vish mad. His love of food is only matched by his love for his family and remaining a man of integrity in a country famous for its corruption.
Both writers manage to sneak in some excellent observations about the countries they have lived in for many years without ever looking down their nose at their host country’s failings. These are fictional travelogues at their best, for they open not just our eyes but our hearts to a country’s culture, heritage and modern attitudes.
Try “The Case of the Love Commandos” and “The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken”, two excellent guidebooks into the world of detection, fragrant Indian cuisine and how to remain sane when your eighty-year-old Mummy-ji is determined to outshine the rest of her family.