Clues to Smith's 'Detective Agency'

A conversation with author Alexander McCall Smith on the new HBO series, Jill Scott's performance and navigativing African culture as a white man.


He’s not the first person that you’d expect to author a series of mysteries starring Mma Precious Ramotswe, an enterprising “lady detective,” a Botswana woman of “traditional build.” Novelist Alexander McCall Smith is, after all, neither Botswanan nor female, but a Scottish law professor who was born in Zimbabwe and educated in Zimbabwe and Scotland 

A few years back, however, as he helped establish the law school at the University of Botswana, Smith, the author of 60 books, fell in love with the country. Consider the 10 wildly best-selling novels in his The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Smith’s tribute to the tiny South African nation.  

This Sunday, HBO debuts the two-hour premiere of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, directed by the late Anthony Minghella and starring Grammy-winning singer Jill Scott as the intrepid Mma Ramotswe.  

Recently, The Root talked to Smith about the new show, his books and all things Botswana 

The Root: How did you feel about Minghella casting Jill Scott, an American singer, in the role of Precious Ramotswe? Had you heard of her before?  

Alexander McCall Smith: I was surprised [when he cast her]; I wasn’t familiar. I didn’t really know much about her jazz singing. Put it this way: I have tremendous confidence in Anthony Minghella. He was such a wonderful film director. I knew he wouldn’t choose anyone inappropriate in the role. 

I think she’s absolutely first-class in the role. One of the interesting things is she manages to overcome the cultural-difference issue really, extremely well. That is a major achievement on her part. Obviously there is a different body language, a different accent. Obviously, she’s got a good ear as a musician. But to do the accents well, I am most impressed.  

TR: You’re a white Scottish man writing about a black African woman from Botswana. How did you get in her head? Did you worry about any potential pitfalls and cultural gaffes?