Moving from St. Mary Mead to Gaborone, Botswana takes us from Miss Jane Marple to Mma Precious Ramotswe. How much do I love Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books? So much so that I’ve read all of them, in order, from the beginning.
On the face of it, Gaborone is very different from St. Mary Mead – Gaborone is the capital city of Botswana and is home to about 10% of the country’s population. Yet Smith gives Gaborone the same “village” feeling that Agatha Christie gives St. Mary Mead. Everyone seems to know one another, either as friends or because they are closely or distantly related. So, IMHO, Gaborone is just St. Mary Mead writ large (and much, much hotter, with many more snakes and acacia trees).
In addition to their deep knowledge of human nature, Mma Ramotswe and Miss Marple share a characteristic with many other great cozy heroines (for example, Hamilton Crane’s Miss Emily Seeton): specifically, they use a title (Miss or Mma). Some might say the use of a title is somehow old-fashioned or distancing. I would argue the opposite. You don’t know Miss Jane Marple or Mma Precious Ramotswe immediately — that is, the writers don’t ask you to become immediately intimate with “Jane” and “Precious.” Instead, readers get to know them by spending time with them. This harkens back to pre-Internet days, where relationships were developed slowly, over time (perhaps mostly in fiction, but surely in many cases in real life, too). As Miss Prim says in The Outsmarting of Criminals, “Better formal too long than informal too quickly.”
Pat of this may be my bias. I respond well to the idea of knowing someone on a more formal level before knowing them at a more friendly level. I grew up calling my friends’ parents “Mrs. This” and “Mr. That.” I went to a traditional college, where instructors were either “Professor This” or “Doctor That.” I don’t know, there’s just a part of me that likes that structure, that idea that I have something to learn from people who are older than me, and using a title seems like a good way of acknowledging that. Case in point: I graduated from college almost thirty years ago, but I am still friends with my undergraduate advisor. She has told me to call her by her given name, but I just can’t… so I use what everyone else uses, which is “O’D,” the beginning of her last name. It suits us just fine!