THE MIRACLE AT SPEEDY MOTORS, by Alexander McCall Smith, Pantheon, 214 pages, $22.95

Alexander McCall Smith is clearly an international phenomenon. Having spent the better part of his life as a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, as well as a law professor at the University of Botswana, he has taken up writing.

His continuing lighthearted mysteries — the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and the 44 Scotland Street — series have sold numerous copies all over the world.

Smith's writing has become an unexpected boon to occupy his later years.

This book is the ninth in the Ladies Detective Agency series. His familiar characters are Precious Ramotswe, who helps people with their problems; Mma Ramotswe, who is investigating the case of a woman who has lost her family but doesn't know her real name or if any members of the family are living; and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's "estimable husband," who has been promised a medical cure for his daughter by a doctor who can't be trusted.

Early on, the author argues that women too often allow their hearts to be broken by men. That's because they are "like plump chickens in the yard, while outside, circling the fence, are the hyenas" determined to break the chickens' hearts.

In Botswana, argues Smith, people "value the invisible links that connect people." Even the most remote connection will do. A young apprentice named Charlie makes fun of young women, which makes other employees uncomfortable. Yet Botswana is said to be known for its ability to tolerate criticism.

With the help of some manipulation, Mr. Phuti Radiphuti buys a velvet bed for his fiancee, Mma Grace Makutsi — actually, to sit in his house waiting until they get married and can share it. It's a ticklish situation because they're not married yet, and so they currently sleep on two beds. This is Smith's style — simplistic and straightforward.

Radiphuti is even persuaded to buy the heart-shaped headboard, for which he had to pay extra.

Smith spends some time describing an uncle from Bobonong, a man with "a sophisticated broken nose." The author prides himself on leaving deep thoughts to ponder, such as "a reminder of how slow things had been and of how great things may come from moments of nothingness."

There are also a number of symbols, such as doughnuts — if they come on a Friday, that is normal, but "doughnuts purchased on any other day meant that Mma Makutsi felt that she needed cheering up."

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni started "snatching up termites, a boy again. He caught some easily and de-winged them before stuffing them into his mouth."

There is virtually no plot to Smith's writing. He builds unusual, guileless characters who bounce off each other in delightful ways.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com