“A woman cannot be a detective.” So says one of a group of women. They’re passing the just-opened “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” in a building that was recently a post office and even more recently a donkey’s stable. Seated below the newly hand-painted sign, a cup of tea held primly in her lap, is Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), the only lady detective in Botswana. She bows her head as she overhears more loud commentary from the women across the street: “She is the size of a small elephant! How could she go undercover?”
The women are surely cruel and shallow, indicated by their own long and lithe figures, their exposed midriffs and carefully styled hair. The 35-year-old Precious, by contrast, has already lived a full and difficult life, indicated in the first few moments of HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. For one thing, she has just months ago lost her dear father, who taught her “many, many things,” primarily, she says, “To love my country Botswana, the finest country on earth, and all the creatures great and small that live here… except snakes” (no mention of a dear mother, and no images of her during early scenes of father-and-child sharing sunlight and big skies). Precious has also left behind an abusive husband, a bluesy-jazz trumpet player named Note (Colin Salmon). Mournful flashbacks indicate she still misses him, too, though she tells his lawyer, “The last time he spoke to me was with his fist and the buckle of his belt, the last time was at the funeral for the child I lost because of that beating.”
Yes, Precious has suffered back in the village, but now she looks forward to better days in the city of Gaborone. As a detective, she says, she means to “do good with the time God has given me.” It’s a sweet and sentimental notion, reinforcing her difference from those gossips and naysayers who doubt her resolve. Based on a series of 10 best-selling novels by Alexander McCall Smith, the series doesn’t mean to dig deeply into contemporary African social problems or politics, instead, it offers up middlebrow mysteries that can be solved in an episode’s time, a heroine who is keenly observant and positively feminine, a vague sort of half-step forward from Nancy Drew or Jessica Fletcher.
Precious combines traditional wisdom and youthful idealism, maternal gentleness and spunky intuition. That she lives in “Africa,” here mythically colorful and charming (as well as apparently poverty-and-AIDS-free), a place where families struggle, couples fight, and communities work toward some sort of stability and order. Her first cases, in this first, two-hour installment, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, feature some standard-seeming villains, from a “dubious” father to a cheating husband to a gangster who uses witchcraft as well as gun violence to frighten his victims.
To negotiate these distinctly masculine turmoils, Precious assembles a team of “others,” including an extremely proper, high-voiced secretary, Grace (Anika Noni Rose) and a hair stylist named BK (Desmond Dube), whose “Last Chance Salon” happens to service Precious’ catty detractors. He also happens to be gay, a point underlined when Grace observes, “That man is very much like a woman,” a moment that (re)establishes her limited worldly experience, as well as her propensity to speak her mind. No matter her naïvete: she knows her own business. When Precious is delighted to receive a gift of two ancient typewriters from the mechanic JLB (Lucian Msamati), Grace is briefly appalled that she’s stepped into a “time warp”: “At secretarial college in history class,” she says slowly so her listeners might grasp her sarcasm, “We learned about a former time before computers, when typing was done on machines and the country was called Botswanaland and dinosaurs roamed the earth.”
Ah well. This is not an office where discredit or discontent linger. Within minutes, Grace is tapping away on the machines (she must use both to have access to all letters of the alphabet, as each is missing something crucial, a metaphor that needs no explaining). She dutifully keeps notes on the lack of work, lack of income, and lack of inspiration — until the cases begin to come in.
While the cases and their resolutions are hardly gnarly, they do raise broad questions that have to do with daily adversities and conflicts, as well as some that are less common. If the philandering husband and betrayed wife seem universal figures, the child who is kidnapped from his schoolteacher father (and at first believed to be stolen by a lion) is more specific and heart-wrenching — especially for Precious. To unravel this mystery, she follows up on hunches and puts herself in some dangerous situations, refusing to back down even when she is overcome by sorrow at memories of her own lost child. In these few moments, the film suggests the trauma that drives Precious — to be persistent as well as sanguine. As performed by Scott, she’s often complicated, sometimes subtle, and determinedly independent. In this she’s a few steps ahead of her series.