Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Mystery Mystery

I don't read a lot of mysteries. I used to listen to audiobooks of the Kinsey Milhone alphabet series--A is for Alibi, C is for Corpse, etc. I like Sherlock Holmes. But at the library, there are only two reasons I'll go into the mystery section: Mma Ramotswe and Dr. Siri Paiboun.

What they have in common, besides the obvious quality of both taking place in other countries, is a sense of the lighthearted, and (not incidentally) of the actual mysteries being almost subplots. I couldn't even tell you what anyone is trying to solve in any of these books; the point is the characters, the cleverness, and the ambiance.

The two series are very different, though, and I was just thinking about those differences today. In the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, the country of Botswana is practically a character. The beauty of the land, the patient, the values and methodical mindset of most of the characters, and the dialogue are all intended to be distinctly Botswanan. I say "intended," because I have no context for saying whether it's accurate.

But simplicity is the main descriptor I would use for them. People say a lot of sentences like, "It is very bad when your car breaks down." Things are "bad" and "good." Simple observations are made, and a lot of conversation consists of agreeing with each other. I'm not sure if the simplicity is a little condescending, in presenting everyone as uncomplicated, maybe primative? I don't want to think so, and it's terribly charming, but sometimes I wonder.

Dr. Siri's communist Laos is very different. Of course, a communist nation in the '70s is inherently different from a modern African country, but there's more to it than that. Things are messier in Laos, and less pleasant, but the language is the big difference. Cotterill's characters use a lot of sarcasm, wit, cynicism, and complexity. There are still a lot of traditional cultural values represented--respect for elders, family taking care of each other by sending their money home, national pride. But the individual characters in the book come across as more complicated. I can't decide if my assessment that this is a good thing, that it's probably an accurate reflection of the internal life of people everywhere, that it's less condescending, is in itself a somewhat condescending Eurocentric way of looking at things.

So now I don't see anything for it but to learn Setswana and go to Africa to figure the whole thing out.


Jordanna said...

My mom read those before she went to Africa on Safari. She loved, loved, loved Africa and Botswana especially and loved the books even more as a result.

LibraryHungry said...

I'm so glad to hear that! I'm in love with Botswana because of those books, and it's lovely to think that reality might match up with the dream.

I'm also excited to find out that there are more books in the series than I had thought--there are 3 more that I haven't read, not just two!