Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Readers may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for the past three or so weeks. This is because of a couple of back to back vacations. The first was a trip with my lovely wife for our 15th anniversary. The second was a camping trip with the kids - I’ll be posting a bit about that one in my National Parks series eventually. I have several book reviews to catch up on now, so those will come first.


I have mentioned before that my kids adore Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. And I mean adore. I also have mentioned that I am not entirely sure why. They are good, definitely, but also slow paced, full of formal dialogue, and rife with ethical situations which are hardly things one expects kids to think about. But there you have it. They are the ones who introduced me to this series after my wife let them listen to a bit of one.

I have been experiencing them out of order, because of what we have in our local library. This one was ordered from elsewhere in the system, now that we have run out (mostly) of ones locally. This book is number two in the series.

Here are the ones we have listened to previously (in the order we experienced them):

Blue Shoes And Happiness (#7 in the series)
The Full Cupboard of Life (#5 in the series)

The Sunday Philosophy Club (from another series - read without the kids)

In the first book (which I haven’t read yet), we are introduced to the characters. By the end, Mma. Ramotswe has agreed to marry Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. In this book, another significant development occurs. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (he is never referred to by any other name) has paid a visit to the local orphanage. He is a total sucker for the proprietress Mma. Potokwane and her delicious cakes. He also has a soft heart, so he donates his time to repairing what he can of the machinery and motors at the orphanage. This time, however, he find himself in yet another pickle. Mma. Potokwane railroads him into taking the care of two orphan children, Motholeli and Puso, who are from an ethnic minority and thus harder to place. The problem is that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni finds himself with the children and a commitment to care for them before he has a chance to ask his fiancee whether she agrees. Fortunately, Mma. Ramotswe finds Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s soft heart to be a desirable feature, and she swallows her irritation at his secret and embraces the children.

But what of the mysteries? Ah, there are essentially three parallel plots in this book. First, a white woman asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her ex-pat son, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances ten years ago from a utopian farm. She feels he is dead, but never received an answer, despite the services of the police and a game tracker. The trail leads Mma. Ramotswe to do what she never thought she would do: engage in blackmail. The ethical questions around this one are fascinating.

The second plot takes the newly promoted Assistant Detective Mma. Makutsi on the trail of an unfaithful wife. The detective work is easy, but the ethical issues not so much. How much should she tell her client of the truth? Is it worth risking the education of a promising boy? Which is better anyway, truth, or happiness?

The third plot introduces one of the few true villains in the series, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s maid. She is not at all happy that he is planning to marry Mma. Ramotswe. In fact, she realizes that it will cost her her job. And not just the job, but the privileges she has come to expect. After all, she really doesn’t prefer to work hard - she is horribly neglectful of her duties - and she prefers to pilfer the food and utilize Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s house - and his bed - for trysts with her wealthy lovers. Not content to accept her fate, she hatches an elaborate plot to get Mma. Ramotswe sent to prison on firearm possession charges. Will she succeed?

One reason that I think these books are good for my kids is that they engage in real moral and ethical questions. Life in these books is rarely black and white, but in shades of grey. The people are very rarely completely bad, and none are without flaws. Justice and mercy must always go together, and how the truth is handled is often more important than the details of truth itself. McCall Smith also explores themes of tradition versus modern values, feminism and its interaction with a chauvinist culture, colonialism and race, and gender roles and expectations. I love that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is allowed to be both a bit timid and “harmless,” yet also one of the most moral characters, driven always by compassion and never selfishness. He is a contrast to many of the “manly” characters in the series, always concerned with their image, always seeking dominance, and never failing to let women know where they stand. And yet, these men tend to fall hard when the facade of machismo is stripped off, while despite everything, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni remains himself, willing to help, scrupulously honest, and a true man in the most real sense.

Because this book is about Mma. Ramotswe, it has copious quantities of bush tea (which my kids love) and gentle wisdom and a sense of the commonalities of human experience.


  1. I too adore the Mma Ramotswe books. If you can get hold of the TV series -- we got it out of our public library -- it is excellent. We suspected it would be because it was done by Anthony Minghella, who did Jim Henson's Storyteller, and it fully lived up to expectations.

  2. I've borrowed this book from our library and am reading it now. Thanks for the review and recommendation. In fact, I borrowed a whole stack of McCall Smith's books!