Hamish Macbeth, village constable of Lochdubh, smells trouble when he is mooching around the latest members of a fishing school. When Lady Jane Withers goes out of her way to annoy every single member of the party (and the hosts) with her knowledge of their secrets, she’s clearly asking to be murdered. Someone decides to deal with matters and soon she’s floating face down in the water. Thanks to her glowing personality, unfortunately, everyone has a motive.
You may recall about eighteen months ago I reviewed Death Of A Scriptwriter. To say that I was less than positive is probably understating the tone of my review. It is possibly the most negative review that I’ve written – I’ve mellowed a bit since then. Read the review – you’ll see what I mean. So what on earth possessed me to return to the series?
I always like to give a writer a second chance. There’s always the possibility that I may have picked up the weakest book in the series. So when I saw this as a bargain on Kindle (99p for the first four books in the series – so 24.75p in other words), I figured, what the hell?
Positives first. I did like the character of Hamish. Completely unbelievable, but this isn’t attempting realism in any way, so he works well in the context of the book. The other characters are fine as well – although I had to keep reminding myself that Alice was only nineteen and hence her lovestruck behaviour towards the obvious cad wasn’t too over the top.
The book is presented as a whodunnit. A finite cast of suspects, all with motives, an eccentric sleuth, a mysterious torn photograph, and an assemblage of suspects for the finale. So I think it’s fair to judge it on its strengths as a mystery, rather than a thriller. And as a whodunnit, it’s really disappointing.
Any one of the suspects could be guilty, and the mysterious photograph is the only clue. And the nature of the clue… OK, I’m going to try and not spoil it by giving a similar example.
There is a partial image of something which leads to conclusion A. In fact, the visible part of the image in fact leads to the much more obscure conclusion B. So obscure that, while it indicates the identity of the murderer to Macbeth, it does not do so to the reader as the only mention of this information in the book (and you can check very easily with an ebook reader’s search function) is when Macbeth reveals it in the denouement. There is, as far as I could see, no way that the reader can deduce what is important about the photograph.
The impression this gives is that, until the photograph is explained, anyone could have been the murderer, and I found this, as an armchair sleuth, immensely frustrating. Murder mysteries, for me, need to be more than a guessing game, and that’s what this one seemed like to me. No matter how charming your sleuth is – and make no mistake, Hamish Macbeth is the highlight of the book – this isn’t enough for me.
But what do I know? Well, M C Beaton is the third most borrowed author from libraries in the UK, for a start, so these books have a mass appeal that I am overlooking. So, if any fans of hers stop by, can I make a request?
Please leave a comment to explain to me what I am missing. I am genuinely curious as to the popularity of this series and would love to hear from you, and I’m sure that my readers would like to hear from the other side of the argument.
This is my reaction to the only M. C. Beaton novel I ever read, taken from a GAD forum [edited very slightly]:
M.C. Beaton’s “Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House” is a textbook example of what a mystery should NOT be. I’ll just go on a bit about this, and if you feel inclined to read it, I’ll put anything that reveals the solution in spoilers.
Agatha Raisin is the most immature, rude detective I’ve read about, and all throughout the book I wanted to give her a kick square in the seat of the pants. (Sadly, the best I could do was throw the book across the room.) She falls for her neighbour, but convinces herself she hates him, and the author’s idea of romantic, feisty banter that permeates the book is painful to the eyes. Scientists have yet to discover the antidote.
Somehow or other, she gets to investigating the mysterious death of Mrs. X. Bring out the usual suspects! Here we have so-and-so, the shifty nephew, unscrupulous, desperate for money, and so on and so forth. It’s not so much the conventional characters I mind, but the silly waving of clues in the face (from, it seems, the very first page) involving that character scream “THIS INCRIMINATES HIM!” so much you know there’s a ‘twist’ coming up. Keep your eyes peeled for anyone who is not incriminated or suspected at any time, and you’ve probably found your killer.
The novel contains some practically irrelevant chatter about the English Civil War. So tangential it is, in fact, that the author thought of this way to get the chatter in there: [***SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT***… though honestly I don’t particularly care if I spoil this particular novel for anyone…]
the detective attends a history lecture. A character who leads the lecture is created on the spot just so that it seems more relevant, a bunch of information is slapped together, and then the author smiles proudly. Because, do you see, in the most random moment of the book, it turns out that the historian is the murderer for some obscure ain’t-history-cool reason. He threatens Agatha (who was with her neighbour) with a gun, threatening to start shooting in the kneecaps and work his way up. “Please, please do!” this reader begs.
I was somewhat tempted to add M C Beaton’s twitter address to the publicity tweet for this review – already glad I didn’t.
But this does beg the question, why are these books so popular? Someone please, give the case for the defence!
I never read anything in this series, simply because I never found the name Agatha Raisin very promising.
Although it did give a name for a detective if I ever do a cozy series, Esmeralda Plumcot.
I have vague disappointing memories of reading one of these a long time ago. No intention of going here at the moment. I’ll stick to working out Hamish’s attraction for now… possibly.
I have read all of the Hamish MacBeth books and most of the Agatha Raisin. I think the mass appeal is the main characters more than the plot. It’s an easy, quick read for when you need that type of a read and I think people just fall in love so to say with Hamish and the residents of Lochdubh and can’t wait each year to get back for a visit and see what’s new in his life. I would venture to say that the majority of those reading these books are woman. They are very formulaic and predictable, a comfort read so to speak. That said, I think Beaton has tired of the series or something because the last couple seem to be just banged out and not the Hamish we love and maybe it’s time she retires him. I for one won’t be reading anymore.
Thank you Peggy for standing up for Beaton and the series. You’re right about it being an easy read, as I knocked it off in less than a day! Perhaps the length is part of the attraction – I’ve certainly stepped away from some books due to a 500+ page count. Maybe 300 is the magic number for others.
In terms of following the hero’s trials and tribulations, I would suggest to any reader the Lake District Mysteries by Martin Edwards – only four or five books but you’re hooked on the lead characters’ relationship or lack of it from the start!
I’ve always thought of the Beatons as archetypal cozies, because the appeal seems to be mainly in immersing oneself in a pleasant local color tale with a recurring cast of characters. I’ve always wondered how seriously the author took the clueing though. The Great Agatha always took clueing very seriously.
Wow, this is a pretty coincidence!
I think Jacques Barzun, very much a detection purist, liked her first one, Death of a Cad, for what it’s worth.
Or was that her first one?
Just to be pedantic, this one, Death Of A Gossip, is the first. Death Of A Cad is the second. Maybe I’ll have a look at Cad at some point – it’s part of the omnibus that I picked up.
It’s very confusing, because you wrote that there’s a Cad in Death of a Gossip! Though I guess the cad doesn’t die in this one.
Maybe he’s more of a bounder rather than a cad…
I’ve only read one MC Beaton book (an Agatha Raisin mystery) but I was a bit baffled as well.
A lot must be down to how she writes them. Wikipedia lists over 100 novels in just over 40 years, which is an extraordinary feat, even if they are all quite short. But it doesn’t really leave any time for planning or tweaking! So the formula has to be open-ended: half a dozen suspects, everyone gets a motive, just one clue that helps determine whodunnit, probably decided by the author at the end of the process. Anything more intricate needs time for rewrites and balance. But it’s intricacy that makes a puzzle. I just don’t think we’re the target audience.
Anyway, I think lots of people really like guessing. Think of it as the literary equivalent of bingo! It’s still a game, just a very different one. it’s the fact that it happens to look quite similar to the one Christie and Carr liked to play that causes the confusion, I think.
Well Paul Doherty is about to release his 100th in 30ish years and he doesn’t seem to have this problem.
My impression from my limited exposure us that MC Beaton is making up the plot as she writes it. Kate Ellis on the other hand plots her books meticulously with flowcharts before starting. I know which I prefer…
Oh I agree. And not just the plots. I wouldn’t be surprised if she used a dictaphone.
I’m certainly a meticulous plotter, which it takes me forever to finish anything! And I get enough first drafts masquerading as novels with my job, so I don’t really want to expose myself to them in my free time.
I’m very impressed to learn that about Doherty. I knew he was prolific but I didn’t realise he’d written that many. I shouldn’t have wasted that “extraordinary” on Beaton!
I waited to reply because I wanted to see what kind of comments you got. They are all so interesting. I have never read any Hamish MacBeth or Agatha Raisin books, they seemed much too lightweight. But I felt guilty for making a judgement without trying one. Looks like I don’t need to worry about that, because I am not (usually) interested in formulaic books. But there are obviously a lot of readers out there who enjoy them.
I would never survive reading M.C. Beaton. Thanks for the warning, Steve.
I have begun reading some of these modern cozies. A series about an apple orchard and one about glass blowing. The plots seems lifted from TV and are very familiar to me. Of the writers I sampled no one seems to know how to plant clues very well either. There seem more like modern romance novels to me than mystery novels. One of the reasons I gave up on Charlaine Harris’s “paranormal mysteries” was because of the juvenile ideas of true love you find in them. Harlequin romances with monsters is how I saw them. As much as I grew to hate the TV series TRUE BLOOD (they turned it into vile vampire porn) the books are far worse! Harris can’t plot either. Really obvious villains and tiresome mystery novel cliches. Bodies falling out of closets? Really? She has to borrow from Abbot & Costello movies to entertain her readers? I have come to the conclusion that the modern cozies really are all about the gimmicks and the characters — though most of the characters could be plucked from the pages of one writer’s book and set down in another and you’d never know.
I looked at some cozies a while ago, intending to do a series of reviews, but after a few decided against it. Not entirely sure why I stopped – Murder On The Rocks by Karen MacInerny was actually OK. I think it was the next book I tried that I simply couldn’t get into. I’m not going to pick up a book with the expectation of giving it a bad review – hence no more Beaton – and the cozy genre is too littered with this sort of thing to chance it.
Maybe I’ll have a look at the Agatha nominees and read one of those…
I read one or two of the Beaton books a while back. They didn’t really leave much of a mark, but I would say that the term “lightweight” is quite appropriate.
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