This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

April 16, 2009

Beyond “An Eye for an Eye”: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — pprscribe @ 3:31 pm

The primary task of any great fictional detective is (re)creating balance. Notice I did not say “solving the mystery” or “proving whodunnit.” Any average fictional detective can solve a puzzle; a great one solves the puzzle in such a way that some type of moral imbalance is made right again.

Different fictional detectives achieve this in different ways. Columbo always knew (as did his audience) who the perpetrator was right from jump. He achieved balance not by proving the wrongdoer’s guilt, but by leading the wrongdoer by small degrees into making more and more mistakes until she or he reveals herself or himself–as well as revealing the truth that she or he has been outsmarted by the little ragamuffin detective. Perry Mason, in contrast, achieved balance by forcing the true perpetrator into making a public declaration of guilt on the witness stand, and in the process achieving full public clearing of the wrongfully accused. Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy achieved balance by repeatedly demonstrating a human hand for a seemingly supernatural crime–and literally unmasking the perpetrator who is then carted off to (presumably) prison.

In mainstream fictional cops and robbers fare, justice is largely retributive. Think “an eye for an eye.” Think Dirty Harry. The audience cheers when the bad guy gets hers/his. And the bigger and gorier her/his crimes, the bigger and gorier her/his punishment must be. That’s balance.

Now into this gallery of great fictional detectives comes Precious Ramotswe, the “lady detective” of Botswana’s fist and best woman-run detective agency. In the third episode Sunday night, we once again see the theme of how Mma Ramotswe restores balance in the solving of crimes. Mma Romotswe’s way is not retributive, but restorative. I am trying to write these posts with as few spoilers as possible, hoping to encourage people to see the series for themselves so I will not go into much detail here. But several times in this episode, like previous installments, the most wonderful lady detective demonstrates more of a concern for non-judicial judgment, and putting the spoils of crime to good use even if it means that the criminals get to forgo public damning for their actions.

At this point it is important for me to admit that I have some discomfort with restorative justice as a theory of morality. When it became clear that post-apartheid South Africa was moving to a “Truth and Reconciliation” model as opposed to the post Nazi Germany Nurenburg model, I was ticked off. I wanted those responsible for the horrors to be publicly unmasked as well as pay–with their financial security, with their freedom, and yes–even, in some cases–with their lives. (And I say this as generally someone who is anti-death penalty.) I was mad and I wanted payback. I have come to recognize the value of restoration and reconciliation. And certainly, Mma Ramotswe’s fictional example has resulted in good for her community that would not otherwise have been achieved in a more adversarial model for achieving balance in criminal cases.

But still. I am ambivalent.

And clearly I am not the only one. In Sunday’s episode we saw further nuances of Grace Makutsi as she looks askance when her employer makes an observation and implied suggestion in resolving the hospital mystery. We know from her family situation that Grace knows, painfully, that time does not heal all wounds (as Mma Ramotswe mused once, likely thinking of her own past abuse). We now see that she is uncomfortable with the idea that those who were near to death anyway deserve to have their truth sacrificed in the name of keeping the larger community’s faith in the medical system. This was an especially poignant moment for me due to the key role that Grace played in solving the mystery (and saving a life).

So, I can see that an eye for an eye mainly results in mass blindness. I can’t get over the idea, though, that an amends for an eye still leaves one party blind. I have a feeling Grace would have this same idea.

I’ll be watching her closely to see how she comes to terms with this.

***Also watching The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is TransGriot. PPR_Scribe’s previous No. 1 Ladies’ posts here. Please, if you are blogging about this series, tag your post with the full title and drop me a line if possible. Thanks!


  1. Hey,

    I had to come over your blog and say hello since you’ve been so kind to visit…and I see blog roll me. Thanks a lot!! I am currently HBO-less otherwise I’d be watching. When I finally do see it I’ll link over here.

    Comment by Faith — April 16, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

  2. I’ve been watching the show and enjoying it. I pondered her approach to justice for a moment, but didn’t think nearly about it as deeply as you have here. Good work.

    Comment by Verite Parlant — April 17, 2009 @ 12:51 am

  3. Thanks, Faith! Looking forward to your slant on the series whenever you do get a chance to check it out.

    Verite, I have been doing some reading about the intersections between criminal justice issues and women and children so the theories of justice thing has been on my mind a lot lately. I, too, am enjoying the program. Especially how it operates on a couple levels–a lighthearted and fairly simple story as well as a much deeper sociological inquiry.

    Comment by pprscribe — April 17, 2009 @ 10:06 am

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