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A nice man to know

Yajnaseni Chakraborty pries out how Alexander McCall Smith, creator of women detectives Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie, was inspired by RK Narayan.

books Updated: Jan 31, 2009 23:03 IST
Yajnaseni Chakraborty

By his own admission, Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith doesn’t look like a crime writer. And he’s right. Soft-spoken, rubicund, with a gentle handshake and twinkling eyes, one of Scotland’s most popular crime writers would slip into the role of a favourite grandfather with ease. Quite unlike his neighbour and fellow Scottish crime fiction writer Ian Rankin, creator of the rough-edged Inspector John Rebus and a writer who, says McCall Smith, effortlessly “looks the part”.

As chief guest at the 33rd Kolkata Book Fair, McCall Smith is representing Scotland, the theme of this year’s fair. And he’s also set to deliver a lecture on his ‘debt to R.K. Narayan’, who he ranks alongside W.H. Auden as the two writers who have “subconsciously” inspired him the most. “The Malgudi novels,” he says quietly, “made Narayan the pioneer of the study of the small happenings of everyday life”.

True enough, Narayan’s gently humorous, easy prose and unsentimental yet sympathetic sketches of small-town India find an echo in McCall Smith’s writings about Precious Ramotswe (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series) and Isabel Dalhousie (The Sunday Philosophy Club series). While Ramotswe goes about her work in Botswana, Dalhousie meanders through Edinburgh.
The difference in backdrops notwithstanding, the two series are similar in the way they transcend specific crimes and end up as cultural studies with the two women used almost for representational purposes.

McCall Smith is very aware of the genre-bending nature of his work, in which the crimes are fairly incidental to the plot lines. “I broke established crime writing rules, and wrote the way I wanted because I was never a crime fiction enthusiast. Didn’t read too much of it at all. The fame and popularity have come as a complete surprise, and I can only be grateful,” he says. “Earlier, when I was a professor of medical law, not many knew of my field, let alone of me.”

With his publisher Hachette India — three of whose representatives actually keep a watchful eye on the interview proceedings — aggressively promoting his titles in the country, the writer’s popularity among Indian readers can only increase.

Add to that a small-screen adaptation of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series for the BBC, and what appears to be a new crime series by writer-duo Michael Stanley, also set in Botswana and featuring Inspector Kubu, has arrived in bookstores, starting with Carrion Death.

Has McCall Smith set a trend? He appears pleased at the thought, but will not claim that he has done so. Instead, he focusses on the new Isabel Dalhousie book he is about to begin. “I think I’ll start today or tomorrow,” he says, displaying the same matter-of-fact casualness with which he describes a man being eaten by a crocodile in a Ramotswe book.

By the way, that fictional incident was based on a real one, he says. “A parson took six people into the Limpopo for a
deep-immersion baptism and five came out. A crocodile had got the sixth!” he cackles, most inappropriately.

Whether he will find time to write on this trip, given his hectic schedule, is another matter. “Oh, but I often write on planes and in hotels. And people usually know where I’ve been because my books have passing references to the places. One of my books mentions Mobile, Alabama, and people ask me, ‘Why on earth have you included Mobile in your book’?” he laughs.

“And I tell them it’s because I’ve been there.”

So he’s fairly sure Kolkata will crop up somewhere in his writings, but he’s wary about setting an entire book in India, because he knows very little about the country, despite three visits. However, he’s fairly sure he wants to come back, and talks about visiting the Himalayan belt. Who knows, that India book might just be waiting in the wings.