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Author's musings delight audience

Even as a giant in the literary fiction world, medical law professor turned novelist Alexander McCall Smith revels in the small things.

The prolific author was the final lecturer in Just Buffalo Literary Center's 2011-2012 Babel Series Thursday in Kleinhans Music Hall, yet McCall Smith was nearly three-quarters of the way through his 45-minute speech before he said a thing about any of his writings.

Instead, quite to the delight of his audience of more than 500 Thursday, McCall Smith, wearing a knee-length, plaid kilt, used his time to offer meditations on terrible orchestras, Swedish authors and the art of crafting a great first line for a novel.

"One thing you've got to do as an author is you must always get your first line right," he observed, about 25 minutes into his lecture. "The reviewers are well known to only read the first line, but they're very perceptive people, these reviewers."

Poking fun at the immense popularity of Swedish author Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy of novels, McCall Smith observed: "It's very fashionable to be a Swedish criminal these days. There are all sorts of authors who are claiming to be Swedish and writing these [novels]. Be very careful the next time you buy a Swedish crime novel."

McCall Smith has authored more than 65 books, most of them in the past 12 years.

Prior to becoming a novelist, the Rhodesian-born Scotsman long enjoyed a reputation as an internationally respected expert on medical law and bioethics at the University of Edinburgh. Today, he is more widely known as the author of the wildly popular "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series.

The initial publication in 1998 sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, which has since spawned 11 more books in the mystery series. The books follow the exploits of Precious Ramotswe, a self-made private investigator working in her native Botswana, a southern African nation that, like the series' heroine, is caught between traditional and modern values.

In 2008, the series was adapted for television and aired in the U.S. on HBO premium cable TV network. Despite the telegenic charms of its star, actress and neo-soul singer Jill Scott, and the pedigree of highly regarded Hollywood producers, including Bob and Harvey Weinstein and Academy Award-winning directors, the late Sidney Pollack and late Anthony Minghella, the series lasted only a season before it was canceled.

"I started that series of books as a short story, which just goes to show how wrong you can be when you think you're just going to write a short story, and then start writing the 13th novel on the basis of one," McCall Smith said.
He also has published four other serialized novels and more than a dozen books for children, in addition to authoring several short stories and numerous academic texts.

McCall Smith readily acknowledged that his novels don't necessarily deal with ponderous issues.

"You don't really have to be concerned with great big issues," he said. "You can deal with just small issues, small matters and, nonetheless, say quite a bit about the bigger issues."