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McCall Smith finds the mystery in the ordinary

None of the women in Alexander McCall Smith's mysteries has a dragon tattoo. They don't solve murders among their friends in the quiet English countryside, and they have no interest in homicide-related forensics.

In fact, McCall Smith says, "We never have police in my books -- we don't have proper crime."

That has not kept the books featuring Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie from selling in the millions. Credit their creator for making these perfectly normal women extraordinarily entertaining.

It started with Mma Ramotswe, a "traditionally built" Botswana woman with a knack for finding solutions to her clients' everyday problems. Those problems could involve a cow, a teapot or a troublesome relative, employee or loved one -- they all need the help of "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency."

McCall Smith will be talking about his remarkable books Thursday night at Kleinhans; he is the final speaker in this season's Babel series, sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center.

And, as Ramotswe and Dalhousie (a Scottish philosopher) are different kinds of sleuths, McCall Smith is a different type of Babel speaker. Through his rich life history, he meets the requirement of having an international voice -- he was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, has taught law in Scotland, Italy and the United States, and is author of 90 books, including his popular fiction, some children's stories, and titles such as "Butterworths Medico-Legal Encyclopaedia" (with J.K. Mason) and "Errors, Medicine and the Law" (with Alan Merry). Those last come from his other life (which continues) as a legal expert on medical ethics.

But that isn't what sets him apart most from, say, Britain's A.S. Byatt, Israeli author Amos Oz, or Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (all past Babel guests). It is McCall Smith's comfortable place on the world's best-seller lists. Yes, his writing voice is international, but he speaks it in a language people everywhere can understand.

Just Buffalo's incoming artistic director Barbara Cole explains, "What's interesting about Alexander McCall Smith, which makes him unique among the writers in the Babel series, is that he is such a serial writer -- and also how many people know the series -- 'The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,' '44 Scotland Street' -- but they don't know much about him in particular. It's a new audience for us -- a lot of new people have been calling the office asking about the series."

The format for Thursday's event is a more intimate conversation rather than a reading or lecture, with Cole onstage with the author.

"I think it should be an enjoyable evening," McCall Smith said a few days ago, talking by phone a day after arriving in New York City. He said he had finished three book chapters on the flight over (writing them, not reading them; he said he writes about 1,000 words an hour).

Once at his hotel, he took time to tweet about the enormous martinis being served in the bar there -- though he declined to jump in. He is an active Twitter user (@McCallSmith), and peppers his observations with references as diverse as Auden, Putin and Graham Greene.

The brief missives also give a window into how his productive mind works, something he shares at his speaking appearances. He said, "People want to hear about the world of books and how I approach it; they want to hear about how I see the characters in the book."

He sees them in much the way he looks at the world: with striking clarity and keen observation. He is alert to the value of the everyday -- "I've always found it quite poignant how people's small possessions can be so important to them" -- and cites Proust ("Remembrance of Things Past") as a masterful writer "who talks about ordinary things and elevates them to find the meanings that they hold."

"One doesn't need to have sensational events happening to make life interesting," McCall Smith says. As he talks, you can tell he is exploring the subject, not lecturing. "In our lives, it's the little things that are very important ... for instance, in an office, it's important which coffee cup is yours, and problems over that could cause all kinds of issues."

Buffalo mystery writer Gary Earl Ross, who has won an Edgar Award for his own work, sees that appreciation of small things, and the way it can be used to create realistic characters, as McCall Smith's gift as a writer.

"What makes a mystery -- and a mystery series -- successful is the detective: You have to either love the detective, or hate the detective," Ross said. "[McCall Smith's] Precious Ramotswe has the requisite wisdom, observation skills and moral compass of a great detective."

He added that, along with giving us a believable heroine, McCall Smith is able to transport his readers to a place totally unfamiliar to most of them: the plains of Africa.

"He puts you there, which is one of the tricky things in terms of writing," Ross said. "He puts you in the thick of things." But, he added, the mystery he creates isn't based on horror.

"[His novels] deal with recognizable people, with recognizable flaws -- not stereotypes," Ross said. "He's created some wonderful characters here."

Talking about Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith makes the point that she is not born completely from his imagination.

"There are many people like her in Bot-swana," McCall Smith said, his affection for that part of the world coming through. "She is perfectly credible. Such people are sincere and not cynical. She knows where she comes from; she's proud of where she comes from.

"I find that very attractive."

So do others, who buy his books by the millions. It could be because in the dry Bot-swana village, they find something missing from their own well-provided-for lives.

McCall Smith mused that "In our modern, affluent society, our possessions -- the material things in our lives -- are less important because they're replaceable, and they're also impermanent. Having our material needs met so easily, we lose our attachment to objects of significance."

Now, he sees more people interested in knowing where the things in their lives -- their food, their clothes -- come from.

Asked why he chose to explore life's smaller mysteries through the eyes of women, he had this answer: "Imagine what the conversation would be like if, instead of Ramotswe and [her assistant] Mma Makutsi, it was two male detectives sitting in that office. It would be an entirely different conversation."

Which, coincidentally, is what the audience Thursday night also can expect. There will also be a chance for questions, Barbara Cole said, and an extra treat -- the announcement of next year's Babel series.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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Babel series    

Alexander McCall Smith, author of "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series, appears at 8 p.m. Thursday at Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony Circle.    

General admission, $35; author reception and reserved seating, $100; students, $10; library card holders, $25 (online only).

Call 832-5400 or go to www.justbuffalo.org.