At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading Reflections: M.C. Beaton

Name an author in the field of detective fiction and the name of their protagonist is never far behind. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work registers the face and idiosyncrasies of Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie gave us Hercule Poirot. P.D. James' body of work brings us into the world of Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard.

Although not as well known as the aforementioned authors, M.C. Beaton [actual name Marion Chesney] puts out a couple of mystery novels per year in the Agatha Raisin and the Hamish Macbeth series. Although the number of volumes in each grouping runs neck and neck, the Hamish Macbeth books are likely more well-known; this may be in part to the BBC's Hamish Macbeth series of episodes starring Robert Carlyle in the titular role (a sharp contrast to his work in The Full Monty). And while I did manage to read the Agatha Raisin mystery As the Pig Turns, I've read eight to ten of the Macbeth novels. Beaton's Macbeth is a tall Scottish bobby (i.e., police constable) with flaming red hair, living in the fictional and idyllic Highland village of Lochdubh (pronounced loch-DOO). Macbeth loves his stomping grounds so much that he has no ambition for promotion, eschewing any chance to be elevated because it would force him to work the beat in neighboring Strathbane. Macbeth is known for his unorthodox ways, his intuitive knack for squeezing what is needed from a question or two, and his tragicomic bad luck with women--particularly his lost love, Priscilla Halliburton-Smythe.

The Macbeth stories follow the enjoyable pattern of the British cozy mystery: The victim is introduced early on in the narrative (in fact, sometimes right in the title...e.g., Death of a Dentist, Death of a Witch, etc.), with Hamish himself intersecting with said victim within striking distance of the opening pages. Hamish has enough antagonists to contend with, including Inspector Blair from nearby Strathbane, an irascible alcoholic and incompetent detective. But for the most part, the surrounding neighbors are a durable, hearty lot, with recurring stock characters reappearing throughout the series. Chesney centers the overwhelming majority of the action in the Highlands, but on occasion Hamish will have to head to Glasgow, Inverness, or Edinburgh; once, he has to go with a fellow detective to the Netherlands (Death of an Addict).

Beaton draws Macbeth in a compassionate light. Readers will root unreservedly for the constable and tend to overlook his mistakes of omission and commission. Beaton also does a phenomenal piece of work in her portrait of Lochdubh, and her descriptions of Highland weather enable the reader to feel the  biting cold, surprising rainstorms, or welcome sunshine.

There is a tinge of realism throughout the Hamish Macbeth series. Not every case turns out well. Occasionally, Hamish leads the charge to arrest the perpetrator, who ends up dying rather than facing justice. Some moments may lend themselves to disappointment, but they reflect the ebb and flow of the way life is.

If one would ask me if I have any caveats, two come to mind. First, stick mainly to Beaton's earlier Macbeth novels. I haven't read her two most recent releases (Death of a Kingfisher and Death of Yesterday) but I came away somewhat rankled by the two before those (Death of a Valentine and Death of a Chimney Sweep). In Chimney Sweep, the plot line shifted and took some bizarre turns and characters leapt into prominence without much build at all (I say this with humility, as a new writer who fully realizes that I will have to endure any criticism when Litany of Secrets comes out in the fall). Death of a Valentine contained some contradictory moments; the scene of the same wedding is described at the beginning and end of the book, but two different men walk the bride down the aisle in each scene. This speaks more to the editing job, perhaps, but it was rather glaring.

One other caveat comes from the tone of the novels. They are given more to the brooding and insouciance of postmodernism than the foundationalism of the classics. Doyle, Sayers, Christie, and James drove the reality of justice delivered through what is right and true, even if through some very flawed detectives. Yet there seemed to be no hesitancy among them to call good good and evil evil. Readers expecting a world view that makes room for that righteous indignation will do well to realize Beaton does not go there; the primary emphasis is on Macbeth's ability to piece together a puzzle. Given these parameters--and if one enjoys a good cozy mystery--one should be able to pass many an evening by the fire with a Hamish Macbeth story at hand. A dram of whiskey is optional, but it helps!

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