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Alexander McCall Smith and the World of Mma Precious Ramotswe

The following post was also published in the Library’s From the Catbird Seat and  Headlines and Heroes blogs. It was written by Ashley Cuffia, a science reference specialist in the Science, Technology, and Business Division;  Peter Armenti, a reference specialist in the Researcher and Reference Services Division; Marissa Ball, Head of the Humanities & Social Sciences Section in the Researcher and Reference Services Division; and Amber Paranick, a reference librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division. 

Alexander McCall Smith poses with one of his favorite display items, George H. Young's textbook Elementary Course of the Principles of Detection... (1914). Photo by David Taylor, 2019.

Alexander McCall Smith poses with one of his favorite display items, George H. Young’s textbook Elementary Course of the Principles of Detection… (1914). Photo by David Taylor, 2019.

On October 24, 2019, the Library of Congress welcomed the fifth author in its yearlong National Book Festival Presents series, the inimitable fiction writer Alexander McCall Smith. As part of the programming surrounding Mr. McCall Smith’s visit, staff from four Library divisions–Researcher and Reference Services, Science, Technology and Business, Serial and Government Publications, and African and Middle Eastern–were asked to develop a display of items related to Mr. McCall Smith and his works.

Confronted with the challenge of selecting materials that would appropriately honor Mr. McCall Smith and the country he venerates through his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels, the display’s curators quickly came to an agreement on the best approach: they would uncover treasures hidden within the Library’s collections that bring to life the world of Mr. McCall Smith’s “precious” main character, Mma Ramotswe. The world of Mma Precious Ramotswe was realized through the curation of items featuring early examples of female detectives/sleuths/crime fighters in fiction and comic books; vintage detective manuals; and books, prints, and ephemera by and about Botswana–the African country that provides the backdrop to the Ladies Detective Agency.

Below you’ll find citations and descriptions for some of the items highlighted in the display. If you have a favorite item, let us know in the comments below! And, if you want to learn about Mr. McCall Smith’s favorite items, take a look at his Facebook post on the display.

DETECTIVE MANUALS

Cover of Elementary Course of the Principles of Detection.... Young, H. G. (1914). New York: National School of Detectives.

Cover of H. G. Young’s Elementary Course of the Principles of Detection…. New York, National School of Detectives, 1914.

Elementary Course of the Principles of Detection Containing Methods of Professional Criminals. Young, H. G. (1914). New York: National School of Detectives.

Mr. McCall Smith stated that this was the closest book he has found to the fictitious detective manual, authored by Clovis Anderson, used by Mma Precious Ramotswe in the series. This textbook was created by the National School of Detectives, whose founding members originally worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency (which, incidentally, hired the first female detective in the United States, Kate Warne). It goes through the basics of sleuthing, its methodology, and the principles of being a detective in 1914. It also has some entertaining descriptions of the types of criminals that you may encounter when being a private eye.

FEMALE DETECTIVES IN FICTION

In researching early detective fiction, we discovered that American author Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935) was one of the most prolific authors of her generation. She is often referred to as the mother/godmother of the detective story and helped to shape many of the common tropes, devices, and standards that we associate with crime fiction today: serial detective stories, crime scene details, expert testimony, and the coroner’s inquest. As Nancy Dziedzic notes, Green “firmly established the convention of the recurring detective and the technique of pairing a professional detective with an amateur; and she created two detective prototypes, the elderly spinster sleuth and the young female investigator.”[1]

Title page of Anna Katharine Green's Lost Man's Lane: A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth. (New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1898).

Title page of Anna Katharine Green’s Lost Man’s Lane: A Second Episode in the Life of Amelia Butterworth. New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898.

Green’s The Leavenworth Case (1878) is one of the first detective stories to be published in America. While it does not feature a female detective, in That Affair Next Door (1897) and two subsequent novels Green would provide her lead character, detective Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, with an assistant sleuth, Miss Amelia Butterworth, popularly regarded as the precursor to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple character. Lost Man’s Lane (1898), used for the display, is the second in the Amelia stories. Amelia is described as a “nosy but astute spinster from an old New York family.”[2]

The Golden Slipper, and Other Problems for Violet Strange (1915), features the first young female detective, Violet Strange. She is both a socialite and an agent for a professional detective agency. She is often seen as the inspiration for Nancy Drew. This collection of short stories takes the reader through unconventionally grim cases for a young girl. Miss Strange must sleuth out mysteries such as: uncovering thieves, investigating a suicide (or was it murder?), unexplained deaths, and finding missing wills.

The First Female Detective?

There remains some debate over what story featured the first female detective. Bredesen’s compilation presents the two top contenders, produced seemingly simultaneously–The Female Detective, by Andrew Forrester, Jr. (pseudonym of James Redding Ware) and Revelations of a Lady Detective, by W.S. Hayward. They were both published in London in 1864. Forrester’s novel introduces fictional sleuth Miss Gladden while Hayward’s protagonist is Mrs. Paschal. Both stories feature detective tropes now seen as commonplace–disguises, sneaking into crime scenes, secret passageways, and more.

The First Female Detectives: The Female Detective (1864) and Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864). ed. by Dagni Bredesen. Ann Arbor, Michigan, Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 2010.

Frontispiece of Margaret Sutton's The Vanishing Shadow. (New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1932.)

Frontispiece of Margaret Sutton’s The Vanishing Shadow. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1932.

Judy Bolton Mystery Books

While the seemingly more popular (and still going strong) Nancy Drew was first published/realized in 1930, the Judy Bolton books were the first adolescent female amateur sleuth series to be penned by a single author, Margaret Sutton (who also happened to be a female). The Judy Bolton series ended in 1967. Judy was seen as a more wholesome and “morally upright” detective and therefore a stronger role model for young women.

The Vanishing Shadow. Margaret Sutton. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1932.

The Yellow Phantom. Margaret Sutton. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1933.

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories

In The Secret of the Old Clock we are introduced to title character Nancy Drew, a 16-year-old amateur sleuth. The popularity of the series remains today with frequent new titles added to the series, feature films, and even a new spin-off television series. The series was penned under the name Carolyn Keene, a pseudonym for a number of ghostwriters. This 1959 edition (attributed to Harriet Adams) is a rewrite of the original 1930 edition (attributed to Mildred Wirt Benson).

Frontispiece and title page of Carolyn Keene's [pseud.] The Secret of the Old Clock. (New York, Grosset & Dunlap, c1959).

Frontispiece and title page of Carolyn Keene’s [pseud.] The Secret of the Old Clock. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, c1959.

The Solange Stories

“They are detective stories in that they contain a detective….” The author of The Solange Stories, F. Tennyson Jesse, allows us a great deal of insight on the rules of detective fiction, as she sees it. The forward for this book details how she constructs her own detective stories and develops their characters. Jesse was an English novelist and dramatist, and also the grand-niece of poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The Solange Stories are a set of murder tales about a Frenchwoman detective, Solange Fontaine, whose psychic powers allow her to sense the “presence of evil,” a unique and quite useful ability for a sleuth!

Frontispiece of Geraldine Bonner's The Girl at Central. (New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1915).

Frontispiece of Geraldine Bonner’s The Girl at Central. New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1915.

Sleuth or Meddler?

In The Girl at Central, character Molly Morganthau, a young telephone switch operator for the Telephone Exchange, helps to solve a murder. She was the first blue-collar worker “female detective”–seen by some as not an investigator, but a meddler. She overhears conversations, is passed along information, and shares her gathered evidence with “legitimate” investigators and law enforcement.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

This is the first novel in the series that would become The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, published by Alexander McCall Smith. The series features beloved character Mma Precious Ramotswe and follows her as she solves mysteries throughout Botswana. As of October 2019, there are twenty titles in the series, with To The Land of Long Lost Friends being the newest novel.

Additional titles featured in the display about female detectives in fiction:

One of two tables comprising the Alexander McCall Smith display in the Library's Whittall Pavilion. Photo by Peter Armenti, 2019.

One of two sections of the Alexander McCall Smith display in the Library’s Whittall Pavilion.

Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths: Essays on the Fiction of Girl Detectives. ed. by Michael G. Cornelius and Melanie E. Gregg. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co., c2008.

The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction. Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan. New York, St. Martin’s Press, c1981.

Busybodies, Meddlers, and Snoops: The Female Hero in Contemporary Women’s Mysteries. Kimberly J. Dilley. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1998.

Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters in Mystery Fiction. Colleen Barnett. Scottsdale, AZ, Poisoned Pen Press, c2002.

FEMALE DETECTIVES AND CRIME FIGHTERS IN COMICS

Blonde Phantom. Volume 2, no. 1 (August-September 1947)

Published during the Golden Age of Comics by Marvel Comics. Louise Grant Mason, a fictional masked crime fighter known as Blonde Phantom, is trained in martial arts and works as a secretary to private detective (and her future husband) Mark Mason.

Cover of Moon Girl. Volume 1, no. 8 (Summer 1949).

Cover of Moon Girl. Volume 1, no. 8 (Summer 1949).

Moon Girl (title varies). Volume 1, no. 8 (Summer 1949)

Also published during the Golden Age of Comics by EC Comics, the fictional crime-fighter superhero known as Moon Girl (aka Clare Lune or Princess of the Moon) is never without her namesake moonstone, said to make her invincible and “superior to any man.”

Brenda Starr. no. 1 (October/December 1963)

Created by Dale Messick, the adventurous and glamorous fictional crime-solving news reporter Brenda Starr first appeared in the Chicago Tribune newspaper on June 30, 1940. The comic book issue on display was the first to be published by Dell Publishing in 1963.

 

Marvel Premiere Featuring Iron Fist. Volume 1, no. 21 (March 1975)

Published by Marvel Comics, this comic book issue features the first appearance of Mercedes “Misty” Knight, a black female detective with a bionic right arm. A former NYPD police officer, she starts a private investigation agency with friend, Colleen Wing.

Amber Paranick, Serial and Government Publications Division, chats with a visitor about Moon Girl and other early comics featuring female crime fighters.

Amber Paranick, Serial and Government Publications Division, chats with a visitor about Moon Girl and other early comics featuring female crime fighters.

1st Issue Special. Volume 1, no. 4 (July 1975)

Published by DC Comics, the comic book issue on display features the first appearance of the Lady Cop, aka Liza Warner, a fictional police officer.

Dakota North. Volume 1, no. 1 (June 1986)

Published by Marvel Comics, this comic book issue features the first appearance of the female investigator, Dakota North. The eponymous title was short-lived, with a run of only 5 issues.

52. no. 48 (April 2007)

Published by DC Comics, this comic book issue introduces readers to Renee Maria Montoya, now operating as the new Question. Montoya was a former female detective from the Gotham City Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit.

Stumptown. no. 4 (August 2010)

Dex Parios is a bisexual female private investigator based in Portland, Oregon, in this modern day series. This comic book issue is the fourth and final issue in the Stumptown series created by Greg Rucka and features art by Matthew Southworth.

BOTSWANA THROUGH ITS FLORA AND FAUNA

A selection of these books are on display in the Library’s Science and Business Reading Room, 5th Floor, John Adams Building until November 25, 2019.

Illustration of the Namaqualand Daisy from The Flowering Plants of South Africa. Phillips, E. P., and Pole-Evans, I. B. (1921). London: Reeve.

Illustration of the Namaqualand Daisy from The Flowering Plants of South Africa. Phillips, E. P., and Pole-Evans, I. B. London, Reeve, 1921.

The Flowering Plants of South Africa. Phillips, E. P., & B., P. E. I. (1921). London: Reeve.

The Namaqualand Daisy is a common daisy found in southern Africa. It grows about a foot tall with course leaves. In summer it is topped with a large daisy flower ranging in color from yellow, orange, pink or white with a brown center. This flower is an intricate part of the Botswana landscape and is described in several of the books of the series.

Portraits of the Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa. Harris, W. C., & Howard, F. (1969). Cape Town: Sable Publishers.

The Camelopard, or what we know today as the Giraffe, is an old English name deriving from ancient Greek meaning “camel” and “leopard.” This is referring to its camel-like shape and leopard-like spotting. A giraffe male can reach a height of 18 ft. from head to hoof and can be 20 ft. long from nose to tail. It is the tallest animal that lives on land on the planet. The giraffe is mentioned several times throughout the series and graces both the covers of some of the books and part of the title of one of the books.

Illustration of the Cameleopard from W. C. Harris and F. Howard’s Portraits of the Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa (1969). Cape Town: Sable Publishers.

Illustration of the Camelopard from W. C. Harris and F. Howard’s Portraits of the Game & Wild Animals of Southern Africa. Cape Town, Sable Publishers, 1969.

Rounding out the display, the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division presented a number of other items related to Botswana culture and industry. You can review its display captions to learn about the many wonderful items shared by the division with Mr. McCall Smith and the public.


NOTES

[1] “Green, Anna Katharine (1846-1935), An Introduction to.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Nancy G. Dziedzic, vol. 63, Gale, 1996. Literature Criticism Online.

[2] ibid.

The Raven Quoth

It’s hard for the raven to shake the association to doom and gloom found in literature, religion, art, vocabulary (e.g. raving mad), and legends- and it doesn’t help their case that a group of them is called an ‘unkindness’ of ravens. There is so much more to the raven than omens of bad luck.