He has since become internationally known as a writer of fiction, with sales of English language versions exceeding 40 million by 2010 and translations into 46 languages. He is most widely known as the creator of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. "McCall" is not a middle name: his surname is "McCall Smith".
Alexander McCall Smith was born in Bulawayo in 1948 in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), where his father worked as a public prosecutor. He was educated at the Christian Brothers College before moving to Scotland to study law at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned his PhD in law. He soon taught at Queen's University Belfast, and while teaching there he entered a literary competition: one a children's book and the other a novel for adults. He won in the children's category.
He settled in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1984. He and his wife Elizabeth, a physician, bought a Victorian mansion that they renovated and restored, raising their two daughters Lucy and Emily. They lived in the same home in 2010. In the Merchiston area of Edinburgh, he lives close to the authors J. K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson.
An amateur bassoonist, he co-founded The Really Terrible Orchestra. He has helped to found Botswana's first centre for opera training, the Number 1 Ladies' Opera House, for whom he wrote the libretto of their first production, a version of Macbeth set among a troop of baboons in the Okavango Delta.
He is the author of a testimonial in The Future of the NHS (2006).
In 2014 it was reported that McCall Smith had purchased the Cairns of Coll, a remote, uninhabited chain of Scottish islands in the Hebrides. He said, "I intend to do absolutely nothing with them, and to ensure that, after I am gone, they are held in trust, unspoilt and uninhabited, for the nation. I want them kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife – for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home.”
He returned to southern Africa in 1981 to help co-found and teach law at the University of Botswana. While there, he co-wrote what remains the only book on the country's legal system, The Criminal Law of Botswana (1992).
He was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and is now Emeritus Professor at its School of Law. He retains a further involvement with the University in relation to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
He is the former chairman of the Ethics Committee of the British Medical Journal (until 2002), the former vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and a former member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO. After achieving success as a writer, he gave up these commitments. He was appointed a CBE in the New Year's Honours List issued at the end of December 2006 for services to literature. In June 2007, he was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at a ceremony celebrating the tercentenary of the University of Edinburgh School of Law. In June 2015 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at a graduation ceremony at the University of St Andrews.
McCall Smith is a prolific author of fiction, with several series to his credit. He writes at a prodigious rate: "Even when travelling, he never loses a day, turning out between 2,000 and 3,000 words [a day] – but more like 5,000 words when at home in Edinburgh. His usual rate is 1,000 words an hour." He has gained the most fame for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe and Gaborone, Botswana. The first novel was published in 1998. In 2009, the success of that series was described in The Telegraph: "the staggering success of his Botswanan novels in the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – they have sold more than 20 million copies in English editions alone and been translated into 40 languages". A further description of his readers, his fans is in strong words: "To say McCall Smith is a literary phenomenon doesn’t quite describe what has happened. He has become more of a movement, a worldwide club for the dissemination of gentle wisdom and good cheer."
According to his publisher in Edinburgh, Polygon (an imprint of Birlinn Books), "He was, until 2005, a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, but gave up the position to concentrate on his writing and now writes full time."
He published 30 books in the 1980s and 1990s before he began the series that has brought him the world's notice. In 2008 he wrote a serialized online novel Corduroy Mansions, with the audio edition read by Andrew Sachs made available at the same pace as the daily publication. He wrote more than ten chapters ahead of publication, finding the experience of serialized publication to be "a frightening thing to create a novel while his readers watched. 'I am like a man on a tightrope.'"
In 2009 he donated the short story Still Life to Oxfam's "Ox-Tales" project, comprising four collections of stories written by 38 British authors. McCall Smith's story was published in the "Air" collection.