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Marion Chesney has been writing the Hamish Macbeth crime series of books under her pen name of M.C. Beaton since 1985 and her legion of fans will be delighted to see the twenty-ninth book in the series - entitled 'Death of Yesterday' - has recently been released. This book, 'Death of a Gentle Lady', was first published in 2008 and is one of the later crime tales of the lazy policeman who patrols the sleepy village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands.
As with so many of the Hamish Macbeth series it begins with a stranger arriving in the village and causing disruption among the locals. This time it's an old lady called Mrs Gentle who Macbeth thinks is anything BUT gentle. Gentle by name but certainly not by nature, is his view of her and it becomes obvious that he's not the only one who thinks that way when she suddenly dies under unusual circumstances - or should that be under somewhat usual circumstances in M.C. Beaton's novels? To say any more about the plot would give away too much but I will say that Hamish gets engaged, yet again, and there's a very unexpected marriage at the end that will leave regular fans (like me) chuckling with delight.
It's one of the more convoluted stories in the series but is no less enjoyable for that. It's well up to the normal standards of this excellent writer. Her books aren't particularly violent, there's little sex or swearing and most of her regular characters are the kind of people you'd like to have living near you. It's far removed from real life but sometimes this is the kind of escapist fiction we need to let us know that all's right with the world. However bad things may be, Macbeth will always save the day.
If you are new to the Hamish Macbeth stories then I would definitely advise against starting here though, especially if your only knowledge of them is through the BBC television series that bore hardly any resemblance to the books. New readers will find that the characters and situations are just too well established this far in the series of novels. But if you're already a fan of the tall red-headed Scottish bobby then you'll find this is yet another classic Macbeth.
Local policeman, Hamish Macbeth, is the only person in Lochdubh that doesn't like Mrs Gentle. Mrs Gentle is an incomer to the area, seemingly a harmless old lady who likes wearing lavender-coloured clothes, but Hamish has seen another side to her when she is rude and peevish to her family in private. Her maid, Ayesha, fares even less well, and to save her from being deported, Hamish offers to marry her. But on the day of the wedding, Ayesha fails to turn up. Then Mrs Gentle is found dead. Can Hamish uncover the mystery of Ayesha's disappearance and Mrs Gentle's murder?
Hamish Macbeth is one of my favourite fictional detectives. He is not to be taken too seriously though. A tall, gangly Highlander with red hair, he is somehow able to attract the opposite sex all too easily - in this book, he has five women apparently fighting for his attention. Hamish is also incredibly lazy - after all the successes in his career, he should have been promoted and moved on to the city, but he doesn't want the responsibility, preferring to stay in Lochdubh, where work is usually quiet. It is, I think, very hard to take a dislike to Hamish. He is generally honest and caring, and his personality leaps off the page. I personally prefer him to M C Beaton's other fictional detective, Agatha Raisin, simply because he is more likeable.
There are a host of other characters in the book, but my favourite are the recurring characters. None of them have major roles in the book, but because the reader has already been introduced to them and their foibles in previous books, they really stand out. For readers new to the series, it is not difficult to pick up the story, but I think those already familiar with the series will get the most out of the book. One recurring character is Jimmy, a police colleague of Hamish, who is a bit of an alcoholic. However, in this book, he is doing well in his career and uses the opportunity to help Hamish when he can. Then there are two of Hamish's ex lovers, Priscilla and Elspeth. Priscilla is a career woman, living in London most of the time, who comes across as being very sure of herself and a little bit cold. Elspeth is a journalist, and rude with it, but underneath she is much softer than Priscilla. Their presence in the book adds more colour to Hamish himself, and it is fun trying to work out which one he will eventually end up with!
I'm not always convinced that murder and comedy go all that well together - there is something rather disrespectful about it all, However, M C Beaton manages to make it work. primarily because those who die are nearly always nasty pieces of work, and therefore 'asking' to be murdered. This does mean that the characters, apart from the main ones, are very one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like, and would not fit into a more serious book. They add to the entertainment here though. The depiction of Highlanders may cause offence for some - they are frequently described as being a bit thick and not at all au fait with the modern world - however, personally I find it is very hard not to be fond of them and their liking for living a simpler life.
In my opinion, the standard of writing in this book and others in the series is not very high. It frequently feels that Beaton has scribbled down her thoughts as they come and that whoever edited it has largely left the original alone. Somehow, though, this adds to the laid-back atmosphere of the book, providing an almost conversational tone. I can't imagine Beaton ever winning any literary prizes, but I think the entertainment value of the book more than makes up for it.
What I love most of all about this book is the descriptions of the area in which it is set. I don't know exactly where Beaton meant it to be - Lochdubh is a fictional place - but it always reminds me of the West coast of Scotland where I spent many holidays as a child, and certainly in the TV series, it is set around the Kyle of Lochalsh. The remoteness of the area is well-described, but most of all, it is the beauty of the area that stands out - M C Beaton clearly has a great fondness for the area.
Anyone who watched the TV series when it was on may be disappointed at the differences between the book and the series. Hamish himself is very different, being tall, gangly and red-haired in the book, whereas he is good looking and blondish in the TV programme. There is no TV John in the book, Hamish's assistant at the police station. Priscilla becomes Alex, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, whereas in the book, she is the daughter of hotel owners. Thankfully, the tone of the book is similar, so although purists will find it annoying, the TV series is still a reasonable accompaniment to the books.
I really enjoyed this book and read it in just a couple of hours - it is a very short book compared to many works of crime fiction. It is very easy reading, there is nothing complicated about the English used, and it is full of characters that grab the attention. If you like your crime fiction to be serious and gritty, then you may be disappointed here. If, however, you want something light-hearted and entertaining, you can't go far wrong with this book. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £13.29 for the hardback version (the paperback has not yet been released). Published by Amazon, it has 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1845296483