Death of a Cad“Henry Withering, playwright, slumped down in the passenger seat of the estate car after another bleak look out at the forbidding landscape.”

When thinking of famous fictional detectives, a few names will automatically jump to the forefront of your mind – Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Tintin, Professor Layton – but I am pretty sure that one that doesn’t is Hamish Macbeth, and that’s a terrible shame, because he really should. This review is about the second book in the Hamish Macbeth series (I read the first one, Death Of A Gossip, a few years ago before I started this blog) and is really rather charming, for a book about murder anyway. Here’s the deal.

In the pretty Highlands village of Lochdubh, daughter of Colonel and Mrs Halburton-Smythe – Priscilla – is coming back from London to introduce her highly fashionable and popular fiancé Henry Withering to her family and friends. Their whirlwind romance has caught them both off guard, and it’s pretty clear that Henry is not suited to the countryside.

Nevertheless, Priscilla’s parents have thrown a party at their castle for distinguished guests of the aristocracy to come and meet this playwright who has taken London by storm, but it’s all overshadowed when one of the guests turns out to be Captain Peter Bartlett, a boorish, arrogant and generally unpleasant man who had one time or another seems to have upset absolutely every other member of the party.

Thus it comes as no real surprise or tragedy to anyone when, the next day, Bartlett is found in the grounds of the castle, having snuck out to hunt some grouse, with two great gunshot wounds in his chest. The village bobby, Hamish Macbeth, doesn’t believe for a second that it’s accidental suicide, the suggestion made by the policemen from the bigger town nearby, and so sets about working out which of the party-goers had the greatest claim for taking out the worst man in Scotland.

Hamish Macbeth is probably one of my favourite fictional characters, with perhaps the most Scottish name in history. In his early thirties, he lives alone at the village police station and sends most of his money home to his parents and six siblings, leaving little for himself. He is desperately in love with Priscilla, but with her recent engagement, it seems less likely than ever that he’ll get to act on these feelings. He’s absolutely charming though, and hilarious, such as when he decides he wants to listen in on a conversation about the murder and casually slides under the sofa, or when he isn’t getting served at a bar so leaps over the counter and helps himself. Other writers might make him a bit of a weed, but Beaton gives him such warmth that although he’s a bit daft, you can’t help but adore him.

Although there are definitely traces of Agatha Christie here, and that’s probably intentionally so, the story is most definitely more of its time, in this case the 1980s. While the set up of a murder at a big country house with a small number of suspects is very Christie-esque, there are elements here that are unthinkable in her writing. Perhaps the most jarring is when a character discovers Bartlett using his toothbrush to clean his toenails, and when he complains, Bartlett merely states, “It’s not like I’ve got AIDS.” Shocking, really.

Despite the long gap between getting from the first and second books in this series, I do really like them. They’re more tongue-in-cheek than some murder mysteries, and there’s definite humour here, as well as a pride of what the Highlands people do and stand for. I intend to return to Macbeth sometime soon; he deserves a place in the pantheon of detectives, and it seems a shame that one hasn’t been guaranteed for him.

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