"Death of a Gentle Lady"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew FEB 13, 2008)
Hamish stood up. "You should keep me where I am, sir, because there's going to be a murder."
"Get off with you!"
Those colorful, Thomas Kinkaide-like covers of M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mystery series often capture my attention in bookstores. So many of them are little, idealized scenery gems. Still, prior to release of the twenty-third book, Death of a Gentle Lady, I hadn't ever read one of these cozies. But when the mailman delivered it last week, before I knew it I was on page 245 and the last sentence.
The move-along pace never dallies over any plot point or character conversation for long. Sometimes Hamish, the red-haired bobby in the village of Lochdubh, barely says two words to a suspect or a witness before he's off to interview someone else. Blink while your eyes descend the page and you might miss a crucial development, they go by so fast. This is murder mystery for folks who want the writer to get to the point...or who know the Hamish Macbeth series' history and characters backwards and forwards: No lengthy rehash of who Hamish is. Only a few stabs at motive pre-murder. An almost-impatience with the genre's convention of throwing a lot of suspects into the mash to make it harder to spot the culprit. And what one could call an adjudicating natural disaster that executes in less than a page.
Because Death of a Gentle Lady struck me as written as either a nod to reader attention deficit disorder (kidding -- sort of) or as a race to a publishing deadline, I checked out #12 in the series, Death of a Macho Man, to compare. Macho Man did provide more background on Hamish and did invest a trifle more in plot solidity and character flesh-out. I felt less at sea with it. But, recall, I'm a novice. Those many who have followed along as the Hamish cozies were published may not have minded the abbreviations in Gentle Lady. And don't get me wrong. Gentle Lady works -- rather like a well-oiled and cherished grandfather clock.
In a nutshell, an elderly Englishwoman, Margaret Gentle, acquires an old, mock castle in Constable Macbeth's beat. She fools most villagers with her kind and gentle facade. Not Macbeth, she makes his skin crawl. The perceptive policeman is right of course, and Mrs. Gentle's heartless dealings with her family and her domestic help soon get her tossed over a cliff. Sure, the murderer can be guessed afore bein' tracked doon (as Hamish or one of other Scots in the village might put it). So can the tip-off that will lead the bobby to this wily killer. But it is a clever enough plot, and Hamish himself is wrapped up sufficiently in it to justify being accused of the crime. Besides can there really be anything new under the sun? The abundance of mystery novels leaves little room for truly original scenarios. What counts is whether a writer can keep the reader galloping through to the finish line. Oh, by the way, this particular Hamish installment happens to include an amateur production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, enhancing my introduction to the Hamish Macbeth chronicles.
Yet, the continuing characters in such a successful series trump the plot as magnets for the fans, I imagine. It is easy to see why Hamish attracts a loyal following. This highly intelligent lawman resists promotion because, he pleads, "I cannot go....I fought and fought until I am weary to keep the policy station open here....If I go...they will find a reason to close the station. I will be put on the beat in Strathbane. There will be no one to deal with this vast area, no one to look after the old people in the outlying crofts. They talk about community policing in Strathbane, but they really don't have the first idea how to go about it." This -- the threat his Lochdubh police station will be closed -- so worries the single constable that he impetuously proposes marriage to Mrs. Gentle's fired maid whose Turkish passport's entry visa has expired. He rationalizes they can kill two birds: she can stay in the country and he won't be transferred to a beat in Strathbane. This scheme to circumvent the law isn't Hamish's only one; Constable Macbeth bends and breaks the rules, but out of good, or sometimes just lazy, but not malicious, intentions.
Besides his beloved police station, his cat, Sonsie, and dog, Lugs, (whom he could not keep in the unmarried men's police housing in Strathbane) occupy his affections most steadily, although he can't claim a shortage of ladies. Women rather befuddle and overwhelm him though. Practically within hours of his engagement, his impromptu intended blackmails him...and then goes missing. Two of his previous girlfriends -- one, another former fiancee -- show up and Hamish's emotional stability takes more bruising as he seesaws between wanting them and relief he's free of them. Enter also a sexually aggressive Russian female police inspector and Aileen, a Scottish policewoman. Yes, indeed, Hamish doesn't lack for company of the opposite sex. But it's unlikely his bachelor days are behind him. Hamish is quite a character!
Now, ordinarily cozy mystery plot arcs encompass the length of the book; once the murder (or murders) has been solved and the perpetrator apprehended, the tale ends in a few pages. I can't be sure whether Beaton routinely departs from this convention, but in Macho Man she didn't. Interestingly, Death of a Gentle Lady pleasantly surprised me with this unorthodox structure: the story of Mrs. Gentle's murder wrapped up by page 183. What, I thought, is going on? Well, a simmering subplot involving the bane of Constable Macbeth's existence, alcoholic Chief Inspector Blair, suddenly boils over. And frankly, this mini-plot is fiendishly entertaining and smart. Hamish, who has blundered about more than a hero should, ingeniously parries the plans envious, desperate Blair inflicts on him. Still, I can't help wondering whether this unexpected surprise wasn't at heart padding for a too-short book?
Beaton, whose real name is Marion Chesney (M. C.), writes under other pseudonyms, among them Helen Crampton, Charlotte Ward, and Jenny Tremaine. Her other extremely popular mystery series as M. C. Beaton stars, of course, Agatha Raisin. Next time I crave a little comfort reading, I'll see what Hamish is up to, or perhaps will introduce myself to Ms. Raisin. These Hamish cozies are breezy fun with a bit of an edge. They're old-shoe homey with just enough "mystery" to keep readers wondering if they've guessed right about the who, what, and why.
Oh, on a final note, Cindy Lynn Speer reviewed another Hamish entry, Death of a Village, for mostlyfiction.com in 2003. Check it out if you haven't already. She provides valuable insights into why this series so enduringly appeals to so many. And now, adieu -- before this review take longer to read than Death of a Gentle Lady!
- Amazon readers rating: from 52 reviews
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"Death of a Village"
(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer FEB 10, 2003)Hamish Macbeth loves the simple life. He doesn't need the big time crimes and distractions of the city; he'd rather be the only policeman serving the beat around the quiet Scottish town of Lochdubh. Who can blame him for wanting to stick with the small town life? Well, everyone it seems, for no one can understand the policeman's utter lack of ambition. Some even accuse him, unfairly, of laziness.
But, when he foils several different scams and solves a kidnapping, he finds it harder and harder to keep anonymous, especially with Detective Chief Inspector Blair wanting him to be transferred to the city, where the jealous rival hopes that Macbeth's crime solving genius will be unnoticed. Macbeth manages, barely, to avoid promotion but his newest case, involving the strange actions of the citizens of the nearby town of Stoyre may just ruin his comfortable life for good.
The main component in any story such as this isn't the mystery so much as the characters. If you stare too hard at the plot, you can get an idea, at least in the smaller background cases, what the most likely solution is. So, in some ways you read these kind of books for the characters as much as you do for the solution of the big main case. This is very true in this book, and Hamish is not quite your usual character. He's very smart, (like most main detectives are, true) and so manages to figure things out very quickly. He's observant and he draws conclusions fast. What makes him special is that he's not at all ambitious...in fact, he has very little self motivation. I mention earlier that the village people think he's lazy, especially the beautiful, if quirky, reporter Elspeth Grant, whose personal remarks make Hamish -- and the reader -- a little cross.
It's hard to explain the light distinction in this case, between lack of motivation and laziness...I think it's because he's so content, yet he does do his job. He doesn't shirk his duties even if he, like any of us, would rather be sitting in the sunlight, smelling the heather. His wants are just so simple...he lives in the police station, has a small table with a umbrella out front, a loyal dog named Lugs, some sheep and chickens in the back, he cooks meals for himself and Lugs, answers the occasional disturbance, and lives life in such a basic, simplistic style that it's more enviable than anything else. You have to wonder why people poke him so much...you think they'd want to keep a policeman so deft at solving so many crimes (four in the first few chapters) instead of needling at him to make a "success" of himself.
And who can blame him for not wanting to go? The Scotland that Beaton writes about is incredibly alluring. The smell of thyme and heather, the sting of salt from the nearby ocean, the soft baaing of sheep. It seems like such a different way of life, made more so by the perspectives and detail she includes in the book, such as when they comment upon the anti-English sentiment that the movie Braveheart had awakened in the Highlanders. Another favorite detail is when he mentions the seasonal differences, that in the winter dawn is at ten, dusk at two....and that in the summer it never gets dark, just "that strange half-light of a northern Scottish summer where it never really gets dark." The setting is enhanced by the very honest characterizations of the townspeople, who mostly just keep themselves to themselves and will thank you to do the same, and by the well done, not too heavy dialect that gives you the flavor of the rolling Scottish brogue without driving the reader mad. All these aspects create a very strong atmosphere in the book, one that will last for a long while, making you want to go to the Highlands in reality.
The summary of what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that this book is pretty good. The main mystery of the story is well done, and the main character is a pleasure to be with. A light, cozy read, I swallowed it whole in one evening and wanted more.
- Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Death of a Village at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Death of A Gossip (1985)
- Death of A Cad (1987)
- Death of An Outsider (1988)
- Death of A Perfect Wife (1989)
- Death of A Hussy (1990)
- Death of A Snob (1991)
- Death of A Prankster (1992)
- Death of A Glutton (1993)
- Death of A Travelling Man (1993)
- Death of A Charming Man (1994)
- Death of A Nag (1995)
- Death of A Macho Man (1996)
- Death of A Dentist (1998)
- Death of A Scriptwriter (1998)
- Death of An Addict (1999)
- A Highland Christmas (1999)
- Death of A Dustman (2001)
- Death Of A Celebrity (2002)
- Death of A Village (2003)
- Death of a Poisoned Pen (2004)
- Death of a Bore (2005)
- Death of a Dreamer (2006)
- Death of a Maid (2007)
- Death of a Gentle Lady (2008)
- Death of a Witch (2009)
- Death of a Valentine (2010)
- Death of a Chimney Sweep (2011)
- Death of a Kingfisher (2012)
- Death of Yesterday (2013)
Agatha Raisin Mysteries
- The Quiche of Death (1992)
- The Vicious Vet (1993)
- The Potted Gardner (1994)
- The Walkers of Dembley (1994)
- The Murderous Marriage (1996)
- The Terrible Tourist (1997)
- The Wellspring of Death (1998)
- The Wizard of Evesham (1999)
- The Witch of Wyckhadden (1999)
- The Fairies of Fryfam (2000)
- The Love from Hell (2001)
- The Day the Floods Came (2002)
- The Case of the Curious Curate (2003)
- The Deadly Dance (2004)
- The Perfect Paragon (2005)
- Loves, Lies and Liquor (2006)
- Kissing Christmas Goodbye (2007)
- A Spoonful of Poison (2008)
- There Goes the Bride (2009)
- Busy Body (2010)
- As The Pig Turns (2011)
- Hiss and Hers (2012)
- Something Borrowed, Someone Dead (2013)
- The Skeleton in the Closet (2001)
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- Official website for M.C. Beaton
- A fan site about the BBC mystery series based on the Hamish MacBeth books
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About the Author:
M.C. Beaton is the pseudonym for Marion McChesney. Under her own name, she has published over 100 historical romance novels. She also publishes under many other pseudonyms: Marion Chesney, Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, Charlotte Ward. M.C. Beaton is the pseudonym she reserves for her mystery novels. The BBC has made Hamish Macbeth stories into a television series
Marion Chesney was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1936. She has worked as a fiction buyer for a bookseller, as womens fashion editor for the magazine Scottish Field, as a reporter and theater critic for the Scottish Daily Express (Glasgow), and as a reporter for the Daily Express (London). Like her amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin, Chesney and her husband live in a cottage in the English Cotswolds.