Alexander McCall Smith on his new mystery novel

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First aired on All in a Day (10/04/13)


Alexander McCall Smith, bestselling author of the mystery series featuring the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, recently dropped by All in a Day's studios to talk about his latest book, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection.

Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's first female detective and the main character in the popular series, has always relied on a (fictional) book called The Principles of Private Detection, by Clovis Anderson, for guidance. Anderson actually makes an appearance in The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection. "He was a character always in the background, and now we actually see him," McCall Smith said, adding that readers have often written to him wanting to know where they can find a copy of The Principles of Private Detection.

"I'm very fond of the characters in this series of books," McCall Smith told host Alan Neal. "And I think that when you've been with literary characters for many years, it is quite hard to say goodbye. And I don't at present see any need to say goodbye. So I've signed contracts to write more of these books, and that's what I intend to do."

When asked about the need for character development in a long-running series, McCall Smith acknowledged that characters have to show some growth. "But at the same time, I think people really don't want things to change too much. So I think in fiction you can suspend the normal rules of life, and people can stay the same."

McCall Smith rejected the notion of bumping off any of his recurring characters, as has happened in other mystery series. "I think my readers would be very upset and rightly so. And I'd be very upset as well," he said. "So that's not going to happen." He pointed to the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who disposed of Sherlock Holmes in one story, but then had to bring him back.


What most interests McCall Smith as a writer is motivation, and he believes that we're all interested in understanding human nature. "As an author, part of the process of writing is trying to make sense of the world, trying to make sense of one's own experience in the world, and also trying to understand other people comes into that," he said. "I've always been very interested in looking at human action, and trying to work out how many of our acts really are fully intended, or represent a particular intention, or how many of our acts are almost automatic." For McCall Smith, the question brings up philosophical Issues of free will. "To what extent are we programmed? To what extent do we create our lives ourselves, make authentic decisions for ourselves? That raises very interesting issues."

Having tea is an important part of his characters' routine, and McCall Smith admitted that he'll often drink it himself when writing. "I think that it's a nice reflective process, drinking a cup of tea. It aids reflection."

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