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Originally published Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Book review

'The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party': the welcome return of Precious Ramotswe

Alexander McCall Smith's "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" continues the sweet and timeless story of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only lady detective.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alexander McCall Smith

The author of "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" will read at 7 p.m. April 1 at the Seattle Public Library Central Branch, 1000 Fourth Ave. (206-386-4636). All free tickets to this event have been distributed. There will be a standby line that evening. Seating is not guaranteed. The library's website says that "If you have tickets for two, please plan to enter together. In fairness to others, no saving of seats for this free event will be permitted."

If the writing thing doesn't work out for him, Alexander McCall Smith has a great future as a stand-up comedian.

McCall Smith, the alarmingly prolific author behind the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and much more, is coming back to town, and there are several reasons to catch the Scotsman's act:

He reads his stuff well. He's a shameless ham. He's charming and hilarious. And he's been known to wear a kilt in public.

Not that there's much chance of the writing thing not working out. McCall Smith's gentle tales about Precious Ramotswe, the only lady detective in Botswana, have made him an international sensation. (He was born in what is now Zimbabwe and has taught at the University of Botswana.)

McCall Smith's many other books are less wildly popular, but they confirm his status as someone who can turn out reams of high-quality stuff and make it look easy. Making this trick even more impressive: his status as a professor emeritus of medical law and a part-time gig in something called The Really Terrible Orchestra.

McCall Smith's latest, "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party" (Pantheon, 224 pp, $24.95), brings the Ramotswe series to an even dozen. Its characters are all in their proper places: Precious Ramotswe, moral, modest, wise and "traditionally built." Her husband, J.L.B. Matakone, the gentle owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

Plus the detective's second-in-command, Grace Makutsi, and her fiancée, Phuti Radiphuti, owner of the Double Comfort furniture store.

One of the book's story lines features another recurring character: Charlie, Rra Matakone's feckless apprentice. One of Charlie's girlfriends has given birth to twins, the young man is not facing the music, and virtuous Mma Makutsi gets on his case. ("Rra" and "Mma" are honorifics.)

Meanwhile, the detectives tackle a job involving cattle mutilation. (This book being what it is, there are no graphic descriptions.) Also, Mma Ramotswe's beloved but presumed defunct little white van suddenly appears. Then there's the impending marriage of Mma Makutsi and Rra Phuti Radiphuti — and a crisis involving wedding shoes.

McCall Smith's characters are quick to find joy in small things. Take Mma Makutsi's private pleasure with the shiny brass hook she installed in her house for Rra Radiphuti to hang his coat on. It starts her musing about how good it will be to furnish the house they soon will share.

And, although the book has discreet hints of sexuality, it's quite in keeping with the spirit of things that a mildly scandalized Phuti Radiphuti blushes when his betrothed kisses him on the cheek. (He shyly asks for another.)

In its own way, McCall Smith's world is as stylized and hermetic as those created by P.G. Wodehouse or Damon Runyon — a sweet and timeless bubble with its own morality, language and customs. Entering it can be a source of great comfort in these uncertain times.

Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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