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Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith on his latest book.

There is a woman I heard of whose mother has read every novel Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith has written in his The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of books. His latest, the tenth in the series, is Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. I went along to see Alexander McCall Smith give a talk in Brisbane earlier this year.

At a Brisbane Writer’s Festival some years ago, Edinburgh author and professor of medical law Alexander McCall Smith mentioned an author whose style had had a big influence on his own writing. I’d written it down but lost the bit of paper not long afterwards. So I hoped to ask him for it some time at his talk at the Brisbane City Hall. He spoke in a vast round hall with a high, domed ceiling. You could imagine the people dancing on the wooden floors during the war years, and orchestras-past on the stage.

Onto this stage with a wide grin walked Alexander McCall Smith, stepping up to a plinth. He looked like an old-world professor, and radiated good humor during his speech to the 750 in the audience.

He said his writing tended to focus on the positive side of life. He said there were enough problems in the world without authors making it worse. And in his books, all will come right in the end, although there were some rocky periods along the way. “As I say, nothing unpleasant happens in these books.”

Later he said that all going well, it took him two months to write a book. This explains the number of books he’s written. There are 21 novels listed inside his latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, and these are in various series: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, which includes this latest book; The Sunday Philosophy Club Series; and The 44 Scotland Street Series.
But in addition to these listed books, I have a few other humorous novels of his: Portuguese Irregular Verbs; The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs; and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances.

It was a pleasure to hear him joke with the audience. He was one of those people that could throw a positive light on the world.

He joked about how 10 years ago he and his wife founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, for people who had learned an instrument when younger and then forgot how to play it. He said it included strings players too, though not with all the strings. It had been booked for the Town Hall in New York for April 1.

He also talked of his long association with Botswana, in which his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is set. His first visit was in 1980; he’d been working in Swaziland and would go to Botswana to visit friends working in a hospital there. Then again in the early 1980s he worked in a Botswana university for a large part of a year, before returning to Scotland. He said he’d visited Botswana nearly every year for the next 25 years.

He liked to keep up-to-date with events there, but his books offered an old-fashioned picture of it, he said. He said he chose to ignore elements he didn’t like, eg shopping centres, but that there was still a lot of reality in his books, and that you would know the people he wrote about if you went to Botswana. But he liked to write “at the positive end of the spectrum”.

He said though that Botswana had few problems. “It’s very well run,” he said. His latest book, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, from his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, features his regular character Precious Ramotswe. People tend to get addicted to this series, and I can see why. There is a gentle humor in the book, and a good story.

It’s the sort of book that you have to ease into, and don’t expect a roller coaster ride from the first page. Having said that, it hooks you in after a couple of pages and you drift along nicely, confident that the story is going somewhere interesting.

The novel tells the story of the owner of a soccer club who goes to the detective agency to try to find out why his team keeps losing. He suspects someone is throwing the matches, and Precious and her assistant get to the bottom of the mystery.

There are also a couple of subplots running through the book. One concerns Precious Ramotswe’s private investigator partner who is engaged to a furniture store owner. A longstanding rival, and unscrupulous fellow graduate of secretarial college, is trying to steal this fiancé.

I thought the book wasn’t perfect, but I really liked the style of writing: where the narrator or a character makes an observation and kind of labours the point in a humorous way. Plus the story is very well-structured and the characters are charming and believable.

At the end of his speech he left “time for questions and complaints”, and then signed copies of this and his other books, for a couple of hundred people at the back of the room. When it was my turn to get my book signed I told him I’d seen him years ago and he’d mentioned an author who’d been a big influence on his style. “Probably E.F. Benson,” he said, “especially the Mapp and Lucia books.” These include Mapp and Lucia (1930), and Miss Mapp (1922). These are humorous stories about the social rivalries between Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Elizabeth Mapp, set in the English town, Rye (called Tilling), and there are echoes of this rivalry in the characters in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

He said he also liked the poet W. H. Auden, and the Indian author R. K. Narayan, author of books like Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985). Coincidentally, I was reading a Readers Digest in a doctor’s waiting room recently and this author was also recommended by Jeffrey Archer.