The Great Cake Mystery is a delightfully written but flawed story set in contemporary Botswana. Many adults will recognize the author, Alexander McCall Smith, as the creator of the Precious Ramotswe, the lead character in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. This time we meet the famous fictional detective as a child. At home one evening, her father tells the story of the time he was almost eaten by a lion. Precious realizes that her father made up one silly part of the story. Her father laughs, admitting that Precious can sense whether someone is telling the truth and suggesting she may grow up to become a detective.
In the main part of the story, Precious discovers for the first time the joy of solving a mystery and righting one small part of the moral universe. The dramatic problem is universal: a schoolboy, named Poloko, is accused of stealing several children’s sweets. Precious has a sense that he is not guilty but knows that feelings aren’t proof. Readers will enjoy how she figures out the culprit (spoiler alert–the culprit is a monkey) and sets up a scenario to catch the monkey in the act. The class learns an important lesson: be careful of accusing a person of bad behavior, unless you’re absolutely certain. A public, hasty and unwise accusation can turn an innocent child into an object of nasty derision.
McCall Smith employs the same simple lyrical phrasing and love for his characters that make reading his books for adults a pleasure. The story is captivating, with a good dose of suspense. However, a key element in the context is misleading. The monkeys that McCall Smith places at the heart of the story are not found in Mochudi, the village where the story is set or anywhere nearby. Just as Precious asked whether it was fair to make Poloko the culprit, I have to ask: it fair to make monkeys the culprits, where they do not live? While Botswana has monkeys as well as lions, they live far from most people.
McCall Smith offers us two things we want: a fine story that is set in Africa and that has monkeys and lions. But one of these two things contributes to our collection of stereotypes –of wild animals everywhere.
Published in Africa Access Review (November 3 , 2012)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Barbara Brown, Boston University