Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Sweep by M C Beaton
|Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Sweep by M C Beaton|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A good old fashioned modern-day murder mystery. Of very little literary merit, but a diverting read that exhibits all the strengths of the genre. Take it for what it is and enjoy.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: February 2011|
Back in the mid-1990s, despite the encroachment of satellite and cable, Sunday evenings still seemed to be a time to sit down to watch the Beeb or ITV with the family for a dose of gentle viewing. "Drama" is too strong a word for the programmes that aired in that prime time slot (somewhere between 7pm and 9pm). Technically, they were dramas – but they were laced with humour, protected from over-exposure to violence or sex or the truly dark underbelly of the stories they actually told.
Ballykissangel was of the genre, as was Heartbeat, or Monarch of the Glen.
Key to many of them was that they were set in rural backwaters, they were full of eccentric characters, and no matter how close to potential reality or how genuinely horrible the subject matter of a given story, they were swaddled in nostalgic charm. Even when set in the contemporary, they oozed the gentleness of a time gone by, or a rose-misted one that never was.
In 1995 they were joined by Hamish Macbeth.
Played by Robert Carlisle, Police Sergeant Macbeth, accompanied by his dog, a Westie called Wee Jock, ignores the letter of the law so far as is practicable in keeping the peace of the small Sutherland town of Lochdubh and his extended beat across the moors and mountains around. Running themes of the series included the tension caused by Hamish's attraction to both the journalist of the local newspaper and one of the aristos, the clairvoyance of one of the villagers and various local romantic intrigues.
The programme was a delight, and I enjoyed it immensely. It had never occurred to me to wonder if it had been adapted from a series of novels. It had a 'made for tv' feel about it.
Fast forward to 2011 and I come across Death of a Sweep – a Hamish Macbeth Murder Mystery Well, I never did! How could one resist?
It's always difficult when you see the programme (or the film) before coming to the book, because the visuals have been fixed for you. Sometimes wrongly. Carlisle was brilliant in the title role, but having read just this one novel, I'm sure he isn't M C Beaton's vision of her protagonist. Likewise, in the book he is accompanied by an overfed dog of indiscriminate breed but presumably having some spaniel or some such in him given the name of Lugs (because of his ears), not a West Highland Terrier at any rate, and also by a wildcat called Sonsie. His love life is just as confused as the programmes made out, but not quite in the same places – not least because the local journalist is a drink-sodden hack by the nickname of Pig.
So, although the charm and the humour remain, it's wise when approaching the novels for the first time to know that the programmes were based very loosely on the books and try to put them to one side.
Drim is a small village at one end of a dark and forbidding sea loch, a huddle of whitewashed cottages and one general store. There'd been a murder some time back, but the place had settled into its normal routine. Strangers didn't really come. It's on Macbeth's beat, but he rarely visits either, there not being much cause. Up above the village is a forbidding Georgian mansion. Empty for some years since the old woman died, it's now been bought by Captain Henry Davenport – the type of retired military sort who insists on retaining his rank, for all its lowly strata. He's a bully of a man with a timid little wife.
He's also got a secret.
One evening he takes a telephone call and then in something of a fluster, tells his wife that he'll be going walking next day – and that she should do something useful and get the chimney swept. If anyone should call, she's to tell them he's gone abroad.
Millie does as she's told and gets the local sweep in, sorts out the payment and leaves him to it.
Later that evening, she's puzzled that her husband hasn't returned, and surprised that the sweep didn't lock the door when he left, but not unduly concerned until she notices the blood dripping from the chimney into the fireplace.
Enter MacBeth. Whose body has been stuffed up the chimney, and where is Pete the Sweep?
In the style of the genre the plot becomes increasingly convoluted meandering from the Highlands down to Surrey and back up to Edinburgh, and eventually taking on a global diversion. True to form, Macbeth is the lowly copper taking on the higher ranks, aided and abetted by others with no time for "the management" but also allowed some space by the higher-ups who do appreciate that his style gets results sometimes. True to form, much of the investigation is done "off the record" by journalists and TV reporters, researchers and other characters going off on a whim (and occasionally paying the price for it).
More realistically, Beaton does allow that crimes are not solved in double-quick time. Although she makes no mention of what other matters might have been occupying Macbeth's time for the duration, her plot unfolds in realistic time frames – months, not days.
A similar balance is struck when it comes to forensics. Macbeth is a dab hand with the dusting powder for foot- and finger-prints, but when he calls for Luminol, he meets the response "What do you think this is? The telly?" A previous SOCO team has been dismissed, and a new unit instituted (presumably the plot of a previous book) but as they too seem to be a little lax, Macbeth wanders in to what passes for the lab, without real authority, and although he gets what he needs to prove his point, he also gets something like a real world bollocking for doing it.
By no stretch of the imagination should this be looked on as a police procedural. It doesn't quite cut it as a thriller – though there are twists and turns and a fair body-count by the end. What we have here is murder mystery in the Agatha Christie style, or perhaps more in the Edmund Crispin style.
The point of the book is the puzzle. Who is doing what and why? It's crime-lite and none the worse for that. I read the book in a day over a number of sessions: lunch-time, post-work wind-down, squeezing in a couple of chapters during the evening and sitting up in bed to finish it. I don't subscribe to the notion that genre fiction cannot be literary, but in this case it isn't. It's story telling. But the fact that I wanted the story told out with-out waiting suggests that it's pretty good story-telling.
At times, Beaton irritated me by feeling the need to include everything she'd written on her character cards, to justify why a particular woman could throw a car around in a particularly spectacular escape maneouver for example, or precisely why 'the closing of ranks' might happen but not hold. These back stories were crammed in, in case we found the story implausible, rather than being used earlier to lay the groundwork for it not being so.
On form, as she is for much of the book, Beaton just rattles through what happens, trailing clues and red herrings, and scattering necessary recollections for those coming new to the series. For all the grandeur of the setting, it only plays the role it's physically required to. Waxing lyrical is not Beaton's style (not in the Macbeth books at any rate).
Her observation of village life is sharp and her humour wry.
This is the 27th Hamish Macbeth, and my first. While I won't be ordering the job-lot immediately, I suspect that I will be catching up with quite a few of them over time.
Recommendation? You'll either really enjoy it, or find it a bit twee. If you like Christie, Allingham, Crispin and the like, it's probably right up your street.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
You can read more book reviews or buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Sweep by M C Beaton at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Sweep by M C Beaton at Amazon.com.
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