Alexander McCall Smith Biography

Author and professor

Born August 24, 1948, in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe); married Elizabeth Parry (a physician), 1982; children: Lucy, Emily. Religion: Scottish Presbyterian. Education: University of Edinburgh, LLB and Ph.D.

Addresses: Contact —16A Napier Rd., Edinburgh EH10 5AY Scotland. Website —http://www.random


Professor, Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland; taught in Swaziland Africa; helped found the law school at the University of Botswana, c. 1980, then served as law professor there; professor of medical law, University of Edinburgh; fiction author, c. 1984—; deputy chairman of Human Genetics Commission for the British government; served as Great Britain's representative on the bioethics commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Awards: Chambers award in children's fiction; SAGA Award for Wit, 2003; Author of the Year, British Books Awards, 2004.


Although he is a worldwide recognized expert on issues of medical ethics, Alexander McCall Smith became better known as the author of best-selling

Alexander McCall Smith
adult mysteries. His 1998 book The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, focusing on a female investigator in the African country of Botswana, launched his fiction-writing career into international fame and acclaim. The growing success of his books led him to take a leave of absence from his professorship at the University of Edinburgh and give up his advisory posts related to medical ethics to focus on writing full-time.

McCall Smith was born on August 24, 1948, in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (later known as Zimbabwe), where his father worked as a public prosecutor in what was then a British colony. His mother wrote a number of unpublished manuscripts. The youngest of four children, McCall Smith spent the whole of his childhood in that African country. He attended the Christian Brothers College in Bulawayo. McCall Smith left Africa when he was 17 years old to continue his education in Scotland.

Entering the University of Edinburgh, McCall Smith studied law and earned two degrees, first an LLB, then a Ph.D. After completing his education, he began teaching law. His first teaching job was at Belfast, Northern Ireland's Queens University. McCall Smith then went back to Africa. He first went to Swaziland to teach, and by 1980, he went to Botswana. There, he helped found the law school and taught law at the University of Botswana. While in Botswana, he also put together and wrote Botswana's criminal code. Though McCall's codification was not put into law, it was later published as The Criminal Law of Botswana and still proved to be very important to legal issues in that country.

McCall Smith eventually returned to Scotland where he became a professor in medical law at the University of Edinburgh. Over the years, he wrote a number of significant articles and books about the law and related medical ethics questions. In 1983, he co-wrote with Ken Mason Law and Medical Ethics which was updated every few years. In 1987, McCall Smith co-authored Butterworths Medico-Legal Encyclopedia with John Kenyon Mason. One interesting title was Forensic Aspects of Sleep which considered, among other topics, the legal culpability of those who were sleepwalking while committing an alleged crime.

As McCall Smith's stature as an expert in medical legal ethics increased, he was given many prestigious positions. He did several year-long professorships abroad including a stint at the law school at Southern Methodist University. McCall also served as the deputy chairman of Human Genetics Commission for the British government and served as Great Britain's representative on the bioethics commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He regularly traveled to London to advise the British government and other places around the globe in his UNESCO position. McCall Smith helped answer hard questions on issues such as how to manage DNA databases and protect the information therein.

While McCall Smith was becoming a highly respected professor and ethics expert, he began a secondary career as an author of fiction. His interest in such writing began in childhood. When McCall Smith was eight years old, he wrote his first book and tried to get it published. In his twenties, he began writing children's books almost by accident. He entered a contest run by Chambers with pieces of children's fiction and adult fiction. McCall Smith won the literary prize for his children's fiction manuscript, and went on to publish about 30 such works. His titles included Film Boy, Suzy Magician, and Children of Wax, a collection of short stories about Africa. The latter was later made into a television series.

By the late 1990s, McCall Smith branched out into adult fiction. After a visit to Botswana, he was inspired to write 1998's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Of the inspirational incident, McCall Smith told Marcel Berlins of the Guardian, "We were going to have chicken for lunch, and there was this woman in a red dress who chased and chased the chicken and eventually caught it, and wrung its neck. I thought to myself: I would like to write about an enterprising woman like that." The character he created was named Precious Ramotswe. She used an inheritance of 180 heads of cattle from her father to found the first all-female detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana.

In The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, McCall Smith had his detective investigate everyday human crimes related to distresses within families. Most had nothing to do with murder, though one missing husband was found to have been eaten by a crocodile. However, American critics often compared Ramotswe to the Miss Marple character in Agatha Christie's seminal mystery novels. McCall Smith wanted to do more than write about an interesting female character. He also wanted to show the positive side of Africa and Botswana, a country that impressed him with its democracy, high moral standards, and human decency. McCall Smith used real people and locations from Botswana in his books.

Although The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was originally published in 1998, it took several years to find an audience. It received some critical acclaim in Scotland, before word of mouth at independent bookstores in the United States helped the book become a success a short time later. As McCall Smith's book became a best-seller in the United States, its popularity spread to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and into England, Europe, and beyond. Although some readers found it hard to believe that a white Scottish man could understand African women so well, the book and its follow-ups received much critical praise.

After The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, McCall Smith wrote more books featuring Ramotswe and other central characters. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was followed by 2000's Tears of the Giraffe, 2001's Morality for Beautiful Girls, 2002's The Kalahari Typing School for Men, 2003's The Full Cupboard of Life, and 2004's In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. All the books focused on Ramotswe's investigations into problems in people's lives instead of hard-core crimes. McCall Smith was able to publish a novel a year in the series because he could write at least 4,000 words a day, and, if inspired, as much as 1,000 words an hour.

Because of the popularity of the series, the books were translated into at least 26 other languages and sold millions of copies. Their popularity led to a profitable deal with Random House, a large publishing company, for McCall Smith in 2003. Random House acquired the United States rights to the series and also published other projects by the author. McCall Smith also sold the television rights to at least one of the books to a production company in Africa, where the books also sold well. Film rights were also sold with director Anthony Minghella attached to direct and/or produce.

Because of the gentle humor and focus on human nature, the books' success in the United States seemed unexpected. Some critics believed that they were popular in the United States because of the decay of society and the stress living in a post-9/11 world. McCall Smith told Rodney Chester of the Courier Mail, "We've had enough of mayhem and aggressive social realism and in-your-face stuff. I think people actually want something that deals with the little events in life and drinking tea."

While the success of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and the rest of the series were satisfying for McCall Smith, he also began other adult fiction series. Another female detective was at the center of one series. Isabelle Dalhousie lived in the suburbs of Edinburgh, Scotland, and worked as the editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. She approached getting involved in other people's crimes from the point of view of a moral philosopher. The first book in the series, The Sunday Philosophy Club, focused on a death Dalhousie investigates after she witnesses it. The more traditional mystery novel was generally praised, and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) bought the rights to turn it into a television series.

Intellectual concerns were also part of another series written by McCall Smith that came out in the early 2000s. Originally written in 1997 and self-published at that time, Portuguese Irregular Verbs was a collection of short stories focused on the rather odd world of three German professors and their inability to function in the everyday world. The primary one was Professor Von Igelfeld, who lived in his academic milieu of Romance languages and worked as a philologist (a person who studies literature and language). McCall Smith wrote the book after being inspired by a German professor he met a conference in the mid-1980s. McCall Smith wrote it to poke fun at academics. The original work was passed around among these intellectuals who appreciated the joke. McCall Smith wrote two other books using these characters: The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances.

The prolific McCall Smith had other ideas for series, some of which came to immediate fruition. He wrote a book about an American tourist called Fatty O'Leary's Dinner Party, published in 2004. The primary character would be used in subsequent books. Another series was less traditional. Late in 2003, the Scotsman commissioned McCall Smith to write a serialized novel to be published five days a week for six months in 2004. With a story set in Edinburgh, 44 Scotland Street featured 800-word chapters and reader input into the direction of the narrative. McCall Smith wanted the work to be unlike the original works of British author Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, which also began as newspaper serials.

As McCall Smith became a more popular author, he still maintained his first career as a professor and ethics expert despite the many demands on his time to do book tours abroad and the like. Late in 2003, he cut down his professorship to part-time, and in early 2004, decided to take an unpaid leave of absence for the next three years. McCall Smith also gave up being the vice chairman of the Human Genetics Commission in 2004 and later, his work with UNESCO. McCall Smith's book contracts called for him to produce a certain number of books a year, and despite his prolific writing abilities, he needed the focus to get his work done. However, his success as an author allowed him to give to charities. He gave some money to support families affected by AIDS in Botswana and to Book Aid, which sent books to third world countries.

Although a few critics dismissed his works as too gentle and unassuming, McCall Smith believed in his work. He told Sarah Lyall of New York Times, "There is a role for books that say to people that life is potentially amusing and that there are possibilities of goodness and kindness—that kindness needn't be dull, that it can also be elevating and moving."

Selected writings


(With Ken Mason) Law and Medical Ethics, 1983. Butterworths Medico-Legal Encyclopedia, Butterworths, 1987.

(With Kwame Frimpong) The Criminal Law of Botswana, 1992.

Scots Criminal Law, 1992.

The Duty to Rescue, 1994.

Forensic Aspects of Sleep, Wiley, 1997.

(With Daniel W. Shuman) Justice and the Prosecution of Old Crimes: Balancing Legal, Psychological, and Moral Concerns, American Psychological Association, 2000.

(With Alan Merry) Errors, Medicine and the Law, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Children's fiction

The Perfect Hamburger, 1984.

Alix and the Tigers, 1988.

Film Boy, Methuen, 1988.

Mike's Magic Seeds, Random House, 1988.

Children of Wax: African Folk Tales, 1989.

Suzy Magician, Random House, 1990.

The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean, Blackie, 1990.

The Tin Dog, 1990.

The Girl Who Married A Lion and Other Stories, Pantheon, 2004.


Portuguese Irregular Verbs, self-published, 1997; Polygon, 2003.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Polygon, 1998.

Tears of the Giraffe, Polygon, 2000.

Morality for Beautiful Girls, Polygon, 2001.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Polygon, 2002.

The Full Cupboard of Life, Polygon, 2003.

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, 2003.

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, 2003; Anchor, 2004.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Polygon, 2004.

The Sunday Philosophy Club, Polygon, 2004.

The 2 Pillars of Wisdom, 2004.

Fatty O'Leary's Dinner Party, Polygon, 2004.



Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage, Ltd., 2004.


Booklist, August 2004, p. 1872.

Boston Globe, June 17, 2003, p. E1.

Boston Herald, October 4, 2002, p. 39.

Commentary, October 2004, p. 86.

Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia), September 27, 2003, p. M3.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 2, 2003, p. 19.

Financial Times (London, England), August 21, 2004, p. 14.

Guardian (London), January 21, 2003, p. 8.

Herald (London), March 3, 2003, p. 11.

Independent (London), August 14, 2004, pp. 40-41.

New York Times, September 27, 2004, p. E3; October 6, 2004, p. E1.

Observer, May 2, 2004, p. 25.

People, May 10, 2004, p. 59.

Publishers Weekly, July 22, 2002, p. 75.

Scotsman, May 1, 2002, p. 8; May 7, 2002, p. 8; January 24, 2004, p. 1.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), December 21, 2003, p. 3.

Sunday Times (London, England), March 12, 2000; February 16, 2003, p. 1.

Time, April 26, 2004, p. 143.

—A. Petruso

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