Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton

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Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton

Buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Formulaic murder mystery rescued by the charm of the central characters, the romance of the Highlands, wry well-observed humour and solid plot structure. A love-it or hate-it kind of book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Robinson
ISBN: 978-1849015097

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Remembering Hamish Macbeth from the 1990s TV series, in the person of Robert Carlisle, accompanied by a Westie called Wee Jock, I'm only just beginning to get to know the real Hamish as brought to paper by M C Beaton. More robust in appearance than your man Carlisle, with a shock of red hair, he's accompanied on his rounds by an indeterminate hound called Lugs and a wildcat called Sonsie. That both animals are referred to by the locals as the beasties, and only a special few of said locals are willing to look after them in Hamish's absence, says something about their temperament. Hamish would call it exuberance. Or loyalty.

Like his televisual portrayal, however, our Hamish sets about his police-work with the abiding principles of not arresting anyone if he can possibly avoid it and similarly avoiding at all costs any risk of a promotion that would take him away from his beloved Lochdubh.

Death of a Valentine is number 26 in a series currently running at 27 which I seem to be reading in reverse order, something I definitely wouldn't recommend. Although the books are stand-alone stories, the life of Hamish and the locals does follow through from one book to the next and there are times where knowing what happens in the next book detracts from reading a previous one.

On a sunny April day, we enter a Church where the famous bachelor is to be married at last. The whole village loves P.C. Josie McSween and it's clear how smitten she is with her Sgt Macbeth. The whole village is, of course, invited to the wedding party. Hamish, on the other hand, does not seem to be doing a good job of being the proud and happy groom. Instead raising his eyes to the old beams on the church roof [he] murmured the soldiers' prayer: 'Dear God, if there is a God, get me out of this!'

Rewind twelve months. Hamish is expecting the arrival of his new constable. He doesn't want a constable. He doesn't want to share his small village police station. He genuinely doesn't think he needs the help. Not much happens on his extended beat. (Well, no more than it takes to fill 25 previous books with murder anyway.)

He is even more distraught to discover that the newcomer is a WPC. A bit of quick thinking turns this to his advantage. Of course, the traditional women of the parish won't hold with him sharing the house with a woman. McSween is therefore promptly billeted at the Manse – as dreary a residence as you could possibly wish upon someone you hoped wasn't going to stay too long. He figures that boredom and rudeness will do the rest.

Hamish has not reckoned with the overly romantic totally love-lorn nature of Josie McSween. He may not know her, but she saw him and fell instantly ridiculously in love with him as he passed through her Strabane station a while previously. She will not go without a fight.

Boredom starts to be a problem, but there is the occasional robbery and the Lammas fair and the case of the vanishing tiara to liven things up. Then come Valentine's Day the local beauty (a church-going angel by the name of Annie Fleming) receives among the cards a devastating parcel bomb. Who could possibly want to kill the wee girl? Everyone loved her. Had she not just last summer been voted Lammas Queen for the second year in a row?

Obviously, all will not be as it seems. Angels don't get blown apart on Valentine's Day… but just who is it that had such a deadly grudge against Annie, and not only that, but had the wherewithal to construct the device of her destruction. The hunt is on.

McSween shows herself by turns to be utterly inept and occasionally insightful. She is at her worst when trying to impress Hamish; at her best when she gives up and decides to just get on with the job in the hope of swinging an early return to Strabane. She is, at times, useful. She has to be, or our author would be unable to keep her on scene. Hamish will suffer fools but not so gladly as to let murderers get away with it. There has to be the balance for the narrative imperative to work. So, just enough, McSween does the job she's paid for.

Most of the time however she swoons around dreaming increasingly daft ways to get Hamish to love her, or at least notice her, or failing either of those things to marry her anyway so that she will have all the time in the world to make the rest of it work. Surely he will come round, if only she could just…

Not a hope. Every plot goes amusingly awry. Until, eventually, something – as we know from the outset it must – changes.

The mystery plays itself out with a suitably unbelievable cast of characters and settings, the corrupt police chief, the gangland hired hit-man on the worst streak of luck he could ever have imagined, the biker-jacketed thug, a dodgy Presbyterian minister, an escaped lion…

All the while the familiar bunch of locals lend a hand or a hindrance according to whim. The beasties continue to get fat at the Italian kitchen, and enjoy romps off the leash in the sand and the snow. Hamish succeeds in infuriating all of his superiors but fails to get himself demoted despite his best efforts, and unsurprisingly goes on to solve the crime… and we're back where we started at his wedding.

This is genre fiction at its most formulaic. If what you want is a decent plot, with sympathetic good-guys and suitably evil villains, puzzling enough to keep you engaged for an easy-reading 300 pages, with all the ends neatly tied and the hero intact at the end… it works.

I just really wish Beaton wouldn't talk down to her audience. Even American readers don't need to be told at a quip about Taggart that he was referring to a popular Scottish television crime series. Neither we nor they need clumsy constructions like Mandrax, known as quaaludes in the States, was a banned drug. We can work it out as much as we need to know from the context – or if we can't and we care we can look it up.

A sharper eye from the editor wouldn't hurt either. I can put up with the unnecessary repetition of a character's name four or five times on the same page – but at least make sure that the spelling is consistent. Lesley or Leslie, take your pick, but stick with it. Getting it wrong three sentences apart isn't endearing.

If you want something intellectually literary, bleak, full of suspense and drama, well, let's just say Lochdubh probably isn't the place to look. If you're happy to take your crime with your afternoon cuppa and a wry smile, then this is the stuff for you.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more adventures around Lochdubh see Death of a Sweep or for more quirky crime try Spencer Quinn’s Thereby Hangs a Tail.

Buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hamish Macbeth: Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton at Amazon.com.


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