Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Botswana is notable for a number of reasons besides being the setting for murder mysteries. It’s a landlocked country in southern Africa (not to be confused with the country of South Africa).
SUNSET-SILHOUETTED GIRAFFES IN KALAHARI DESERT (Image: Shutterstock)
The economy of the country, dominated by diamond mining and tourism, is growing as rapidly as a brushfire in southern California, even though at independence from the British in 1966, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in Africa. It has a stable democracy, and has the second highest Human Development Index in sub-Saharan Africa.
Alexander McCall Smith
Soon after 9/11, Americans–and indeed, other nationalities worldwide–were looking for comfort. I was in New York soon after the atrocity, and in addition to the pervasive smell of acrid smoke, you could feel the omnipresent depression and see it in people’s faces. Everyone was casting around for comfort: comfort beverages, comfort food . . . and comfort books. One particular series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith was right there waiting to fill the role as comfort reading: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. People all over the world including in the US, took to McCall Smith’s book in their millions. BTW, I haven’t completely ascertained the connection with 9/11, but it’s a nice story, and I’m sticking to it.
Set in Botswana, the No. 1 Ladies’ Agency is located in Gabarone, the capital, and the first novel takes the same name as the series. Mma Precious Ramotswe is the first female private investigator in Botswana and the protagonist. She and the rest of the cast take what could be described as a whimsical approach to “mysteries,” such as disappearances, stolen items and extramarital affairs. There is something uniquely cozy and sweet-natured about this series, hence the comfort factor. Even the mystery in which a missing man turns out to have been swallowed by a crocodile has a certain benignity to it. Nevertheless, McCall Smith’s implied warnings about dangerous animals in Botswana are clear.
Alexander “Sandy” McCall Smith (“McCall” is not a middle name) was born in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. He became a Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and a respected expert in medical law.
Astonishingly prolific in both fiction and nonfiction, McCall Smith has published numerous other novels that are not in the No. 1 Ladies series. Personally he’s a rosy-cheeked and kind man with a tremendous and hearty laugh. At the 2013 Men of Mystery conference where he was headline speaker, he had all of the audience, including me, in stitches.
On publication of my first novel Wife of the Gods, a couple reviews made reference to the No. 1 Ladies series. Essence Magazine: “Like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? You’ll love Wife of the Gods.” And The Wall Street Journal: “Fans of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may have a new hero: Detective Darko Dawson.” If there was any intention to imply similarity between the two, it was misplaced, because in fact there is no similarity at all.
Another mystery writer to use Botswana as a setting is Michael Stanley, who is in fact two authors, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Their hero is Detective Assistant Superintendent David Bengu of Criminal Investigations Department in Botswana’s capital Gabarone, which is a planned city built in the 1960s.
A Carrion Death was rewarded with excellent reviews and a highly favorable reception, including being nominated for a 2008 Barry Award in the Best First Novel Category. Since the first novel, Michael Stanley have published The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu (one of the most intriguing titles for a book), Death of the Mantis, and Deadly Harvest, with a fifth one coming up soon. The authors are intimately involved in the online journal Murder is Everywhere, which features blogs from ten renowned international writers. Michael in particular has been very supportive of Darko Dawson and me, which I appreciate very much.
Real crime in Botswana
Crime is generally low in this beautiful country, and consists mostly of petty theft, but armed robbery, drug-related arrests and auto theft are reportedly on the rise. Home invasions are also reported, and these may be violent. Gun laws are very strict. A website, Fight Crime in Botswana is devoted to a community approach to counteracting and catching criminals. Despite all this, rest assured, as in many other African countries, the Batswana are friendly and hospitable. If you visit, just use the usual common sense you would exercise elsewhere.