There are those of us who love a good mystery but have no stomach for serial killers and severed limbs. What a treat, then, to discover Alexander McCall Smith's utterly charming No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, starring Mma Precious Ramotswe, a warmhearted Botswana woman who sets up shop in an abandoned storefront under the acacia trees and African sky.
Smith's books -- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, and Morality for Beautiful Girls (Anchor, $11.95), all excellent -- were introduced to American audiences last August. Part mysteries, part quaint morality tales, the modestly packaged paperbacks quietly staked a claim on best-seller lists. Pantheon is releasing the fourth installment, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, in a splashy $19.95 hardcover (a mercenary move that doesn't jibe with the series' cynicism-free appeal). It'd be a shame to skip the earlier books altogether, but readers won't feel lost if they drop in on the party now.
Mma Precious Ramotswe is like the sensible, fat aunt of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski. She's the scrupulous proprietor of Botswana's only female-run private detective agency, and her assistant, Mma Makutsi, makes for a perfect Doctor Watson-like sidekick. Precious loves her redbush tea, she's engaged to the town's finest mechanic, and she recently welcomed two orphans into her home on Zebra Drive.
The vividness of Mma Ramotswe's characterization may seem all the more remarkable since her creator is outwardly so different. A white medical-law professor at Scotland's Edinburgh University, Smith was born in Zimbabwe and once taught at the University of Botswana. His years in Africa apparently instilled in him a great respect for women there, as evidenced by the warm tributes in Kalahari: ''These were house-proud women, who kept the yard spotless, the sand brushed and raked every day, the chicken manure cleared away and deposited on the melon patch; women who understood the importance of scouring your pans until the black was scraped away and the metal below was shining.''
The author's affection for his heroine is contagious. It's easy to feel a little outraged when, in the new book, a competing PI firm opens across town. The Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency, operated by the greasy Cephas Buthelezi, takes swipes at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in a newspaper ad: ''Is your husband coming home late and smelling of ladies' perfume? Is one of your employees stealing your business secrets? Don't take any chances! Entrust your enquiries to a MAN!''
Business rivals, feckless husbands, everyday tensions between men and women. This all sounds like soft, benign fare for detective novels. But Smith also weaves in thoughtful commentaries on poverty, abortion, and AIDS without sacrificing his gentle, balmy tone. And that's really the allure. The plots are good fun and make for quick, easy reads. But it's the books' warmth and simple wisdom that earn a reader's devotion.
In spots, Kalahari feels a wee rushed. Smith awkwardly abandons some story lines -- Precious' foster son is caught killing hoopoe birds and then is never heard from again. But if the new edition doesn't quite live up to the superior Morality for Beautiful Girls, it still brims with good humor and compassion.
Certainly everybody deserves someone as comforting as Mma Ramotswe when life deals you a bum blow. When her foster daughter weeps for her dead mother, Precious reminds her, ''Your mummy is there, in heaven, and she is watching you, watching you every day. And I'll tell you what she's thinking: she's thinking, I am very proud of that fine girl, my daughter.''
If Precious' gentle nature doesn't sell you, the lush descriptions of a faraway land may seal the deal. (Will the series' popularity trigger a rise in tourism to Botswana?) From the sun-drenched Kalahari Desert to the white-blue sky, Botswana is an appealing central character. ''Out in the open, under such a sky as this, misdeeds were reduced to their natural proportions -- small, mean things that could be faced quite openly, sorted, and folded away.''
''You don't have to read a book to understand how the world works,'' advises one of Precious' many friends. And she's probably right. But these sweet books are a fine start. Agency: A- Tears: A- Morality: A Kalahari: B+