Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Scot's No 1 detective tales sell over 3m worldwide

William Lyons

Key points
• Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series soar past three million
• Sales top 1.7 million in United States
• First published in 1988 by small publisher after Canongate turned it down

Key quote "I am astonished by the whole thing, but really I am just delighted that so many people around the world are enjoying my books."

Story in full THE adventures of a large and likeable lady in Botswana might not seem like a particularly Scottish success story. But as worldwide sales of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series soar past three million, that is exactly what they have become.

The books, which feature Mma Ramotswe, a Botswanan detective, who relies on good humour and common sense to solve her cases, provide a vivid, upbeat evocation of Africa.

Critics say that their popularity is due to McCall Smith’s charming, but uncomplicated, characters and his unhurried, gentle prose. Yesterday, McCall Smith told The Scotsman that he was surprised by the success of the series.

"It really is very encouraging, I am astonished by the whole thing, but really I am just delighted that so many people around the world are enjoying my books," he said.

"Judging from some of the letters I receive from my readers, they are encouraged by the positive vision Mma Ramotswe, my central character, has. There is also very little aggression in the books; they celebrate the small things in life, like having tea and cake. I think people are reacting against the destructive view of the world in favour of a view that is the opposite.

"So Mma Ramotswe is speaking to people in a fairly healing way. I’m sorry if that sounds terribly pretentious but that is the way I see it."

With sales topping 1.7 million in the United States and reaching one million over here, Mma Ramotswe is set to become to McCall Smith what Harry Potter is to JK Rowling and Inspector Rebus is to Ian Rankin.

McCall Smith initially had the idea for Mma Ramotswe when he was seconded to the University of Botswana in 1981. The series was first published in 1988 by Polygon, a small Edinburgh-based publisher, after Canongate - which had published some of his earlier work - overlooked the series. It is a loss which has been compared to EMI’s famous rejection of the Beatles.

McCall Smith added: "Canongate was originally going to publish the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but they made suggestions about re-writing and the relationship gradually drifted apart and that is the point at which I approached Polygon."

His success in the United States, where he counts President George Bush’s wife, Laura, as a fan, has exploded in the past 18 months.

Initially his books were imported by Columbia University Press, principally an academic publishing house, with only a handful of books making it to the shelves. But a cult soon evolved in the Boston area after staff at an independent bookshop started recommending the series to customers.

The New York Times was quick to pick up on the story and wrote an article on the series, which in turn was spotted by Random House, the largest English-language publisher in the world, which subsequently bought the series.

When McCall Smith travelled to New York in 2002, he was astonished to learn that the publishing house there was proposing a print-run in excess of 100,000.

Since then, McCall Smith has undertaken promotional tours as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and Alaska as his books have been translated into 26 languages.

Although literary success has come late for McCall Smith, he is a highly respected academic in his own right. As well as teaching at Edinburgh University where he is professor of medical law, he occupies a variety of public positions including vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission for the UK, chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO.

Until 12 months ago his colleagues knew little about his writing, yet he had in fact written more than 50 titles, ranging from a textbook on the criminal law of Botswana to a children’s novel called The Perfect Hamburger.

Another series of novels now being sought by eager readers is Portuguese Irregular Verbs, one of three with Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a punctilious and fastidious German professor, in the leading role.

He is currently working on a series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, with a new protagonist, Elizabeth Dalhousie, an Edinburgh moral philosopher preoccupied with people’s personal problems and ethics. Television rights have already been sold to the BBC.

Later this month, McCall Smith embarks on something without any equivalent in the history of British journalism, a "daily novel". The serial, set in Edinburgh, will run five days a week for six months in The Scotsman and each instalment will be 850 words long.

His books have also found favour in Botswana, where they have spawned a minor tourist boom in the capital, Gaborone, where a local firm, Africa Insight, has set up Mma Ramotswe tours of places in the books.

"Botswanans like the books because they show the country in a positive light," he said. "And I think that is a reasonably fair portrayal."

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