Here's a mystery: How did a detective novel set in Botswana and published by a tiny Scottish imprint become a surprise bestseller in the U.S.? Let's start with Exhibit A, a slim book called The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. Its irresistible heroine, Mma (pronounced "ma") Precious Ramotswe, solves her cases with self-possessed wisdom and the thoughtfulness of a moral philosopher, often taking time out to embrace the simple joys of everyday life in Africa.
According to eyewitnesses at independent bookstores, mystery lovers intrigued by the book's quirky setting were the first to pick it up. But general readers have also come to appreciate the book's magical effect: it reliably rewards its readers with restored confidence in the international currency of common sense and human decency.
Originally published by Polygon, the fiction imprint of Edinburgh University Press, the book was distributed in the U.S. in March 2001 by Columbia University Press, along with the next two installments in the series, Tears of the Giraffe and Morality for Beautiful Girls. As key independent booksellers like Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Ariz., picked it up, word began spreading among booksellers and readers, gradually driving sales despite a lack of major reviews for the first 10 months the book was available.
The first good break came last September, when The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency became a Book Sense 76 Pick in the mystery category, based on bookseller recommendations, prompting Columbia to make sample copies available to stores that requested them through Book Sense's Advanced Access program. Since then, the book has hovered among Book Sense's top 50 paperbacks, even though Columbia has had some difficulty keeping up with the demand due to the delays involved in securing reprints from Scotland. "I became slightly obsessed about this book," admitted Carl Lennertz, publisher program director at Book Sense, who faithfully alerted booksellers whenever reprints came in.
In January, the book got a major boost from a glowing, full-page essay about the series in the New York Times Book Review, which dubbed Mma Ramotswe the "Miss Marple of Botswana." As readers caught on and more stores began to stock it, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency sold steadily through the spring.
In April, it began popping up on the Boston Globe bestseller list, where for the last three months it has made numerous appearances around #7. By all accounts, its presence there is due in part to sales at the Concord Bookshop in Concord, Mass., where buyers Jane Jacobs and Martha Holland have talked it up to anyone who would listen. Last year, the book came in at #6 on the store's annual list of paperback bestsellers, right after Anita Diamant's The Red Tent and just ahead of Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog and Kent Haruf's Plainsong. Since then, sales have climbed even higher: on June 9, the book reached #1 on the store's weekly paperback bestseller list.
Even without an all-out handselling campaign, the book has become "one of the phenomenons of the last year" at Olsson's Books and Records, selling an impressive 700 copies at the chain's nine urban and suburban locations in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Candler Hunt, buyer and manager at the Dupont Circle store, admitted that he hadn't read the books before taking a chance on them last August. He just piled up a stack at the urging of his Columbia rep, and found that they sold right away. Sales remained steady through the fall, he said, until they "went crazy at Christmas, based purely on word of mouth. People were buying stacks of them to give to friends. My store alone sold 53 copies in December." When the NYTBR review appeared, Hunt created a filmcore poster of the review and placed it on the endcap next to the mystery shelf. "That was a very effective tool," he said. "It has really kept the book going. Every demographic is reading it, black and white. And it's not just limited to mystery readers."
A New Player Enters the Scene
However well the series has done at particular independent stores, its total sales of about 20,000 copies clearly indicate untapped sales potential.
Here, the plot thickens, as Anchor Books enters the scene with the conviction that it can sell well in every retail channel. Having secured U.S. rights to the first five books in the series from Polygon, the paperback house is poised to relaunch The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Tears of the Giraffe on August 27. The books should benefit from a Wall Street Journal article about the series that's set to run right after Labor Day. Later in September, an interview with Smith will air on a weekend edition of NPR's All Things Considered and a four-color ad for the series will appear in the NYTBR. At the end of the month, Random House reps will blitz the regional trade shows with free copies, to help set up the republication of the third book, Morality for Beautiful Girls, on November 12.
With movie rights to the series currently under the stewardship of Anthony Minghella, the director of The English Patient, who is currently at work on an adaptation of Cold Mountain, other good things may be in store. In the meantime, Anchor is waiting until next year to unleash what may be its most potent secret weapon yet: Smith himself, who will tour the U.S. in the spring to promote the U.S. publication of the fourth title in the series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men.
"Everything about the man is totally appealing," testified Rosemary Mauve, an early fan who joined retired PW news editor Madalynne Reuter in establishing the five-member New York Chapter of the Mma Ramotswe Society after reading the books last year. When she contacted Smith by e-mail, Mauve discovered that he was a generous and engaged correspondent, and she arranged to meet him in person during a recent visit he made to New York. "He's just full of delight—it just bubbles up out of him," Maude said. "He's one of the happier men I've ever met. He's doing what he loves."
A Deeper Mystery
For readers like Mauve and Reuter, the undeniable charm of Mma Ramotswe, her highly skilled assistant Mma Makutsi, and her mechanic and faithful friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekone leads inexorably to a deeper mystery. How did a Scottish legal scholar of a certain age manage to write so convincingly from the perspective of a middle-aged African woman and the other black characters who people The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency? One significant clue is that Smith was born in what is now called Zimbabwe in 1948, "at the tail end of the British Empire." After attending university in Edinburgh, he returned to Swaziland and, later, Botswana, where he helped set up Botswana's first law school. While there, Smith also compiled and wrote Botswana's criminal code, though "it was never enacted," he confessed with an insouciant giggle over a recent breakfast with PW. He has also written or edited more than 50 other works, ranging from legal texts such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep (Wiley, 1997) to numerous children's books, such as The Perfect Hamburger (not published in the U.S.). But as for where he got the confidence to put Precious Ramotswe at the center of his series, Smith points simply to his genuine admiration for the women of Africa: "They really keep the show on the road."