“Agatha Raisin And The Deadly Dance” by M. C. Beaton (2004)

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“The thing that finally nudged Agatha Raisin into opening her own detective agency was what she always thought of as the Paris Incident.”

Any prolific writer is bought to have a few stinkers. Stephen King gave us The Tommyknockers. Toni Morrison gave us Jazz. Even my beloved Agatha Christie managed to write Passenger to Frankfurt. M. C. Beaton has never been one of the world’s finest writers, unlike the other three, but her stories are entertaining enough to keep your interest up. As I’ve said on others from her though, she does have a habit of cramming a few too many plots into a single book, which comes into full force here.

Agatha Raisin has had some success in solving crimes in and around her village of Carsely, so has finally decided to take the plunge and open her own detective agency. Taking on her new neighbour, Emma Comfrey, as a secretary, the two do not rub along together quite as nicely as either would hope, perhaps because of differences or maybe because they’re a bit too similar. The detective agency deals for a while with missing cats and divorces, before Catherine Laggat-Brown gives them their first real case.

Catherine’s daughter has been threatened with murder, but the family are determined to go ahead with their family party. Agatha attends, and soon discovers that there was a sniper at a window of the house, managing to save the lives of Catherine and her daughter. Now the hunt is on for who wanted her dead, and why. Things become even more complicated by Agatha’s feelings for a number of the men in her life, and the fact that someone seems very desperate to have her removed from the picture entirely. Maybe the killer is closer to home than she thought.

First up, the title. There’s absolutely no reference to this in the plot. Yes, the key murder plot takes place at a party, but there’s no dancing in particular, so one must assume that the title is meant metaphorically to describe the actions the myriad characters perform around one another. If so, everyone’s got two left feet. The characterisation is thin, and people appear with simple descriptions and then vanish again as quickly, still somewhere in the background but with little justification for their existence. This is most strongly shown with Agatha’s detective agency. She originally hires Emma to be her secretary, but when she discovers that she’s a good detective (although how this can be proved from finding one cat and one teenager, neither of which required much brainpower), she is promoted and another secretary is drafted in. This one, Mrs Simms, too shows her skills with one case and so becomes another detective, with a temp filling in as secretary from then on. By the end of the novel, neither of these detectives are working for Agatha anymore, and we’re left wondering almost what the point of them was. Everyone also has a strange tendency to fall in love – and obsessive love at that – at the drop of a hat.

I also wonder that by this point in her career if editors are scared of questioning Beaton too heavily. There are so many places where superfluous sentences linger, dodgy descriptions and bad dialogue haunt the sloppy paragraphs, and the point of view jumps around with dizzying frequency. There’s also an epilogue tacked on that is clearly only there for light relief, but adds absolutely nothing to the story, simply shows Agatha as being a bit ridiculous once more. While I’ve read more of the Hamish Macbeth novels and this is only my second time with Agatha Raisin, I’ve already tired of her as a character somewhat. A middle-aged Bridget Jones, with a venomous personality.

The plot is shaky at best, and it wouldn’t really be possible to solve this one yourself. Yes, I can see where the clues are being clumsily dropped, but they come together in such an unusual shape, and definitely with some things that we should have been told sooner. The reason for the crime is somewhat flimsy, and there are far too many coincidences for anything to be entirely satisfactory.

Don’t write off Beaton entirely, but this is not a good one to start with.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Busy Body” by M. C. Beaton (2010)

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“Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.”

The rise in M. C. Beaton novels on the list this year is entirely down to my grandfather. Having discovered a few of her early ones on my shelf, he became obsessed and started buying up others he found and then passing them on to me when he’d finished. The Hamish Macbeth ones I’d got used to, so I decided to try an Agatha Raisin.

It’s Christmas in the little village of Carsely, but not everything is merry and bright thanks to health and safety inspector George Sunday. Zealous and tediously officious, he seems to have a grudge against everyone in the area having any fun. He bans the vicar from putting the tree on the church roof as ever, forbids the putting up of Christmas lights without a proper cherry picker, and even disallows people to put decorations up around their own homes.

A meeting is called to decide what to do about him, but it gets interrupted by George himself when he falls against the window, stabbed. Any number of people have a motive, but few seem to have had the opportunity. Agatha Raisin decides she must bring the killer to justice and give herself a PR boost. Elsewhere, one of the key witnesses thinks she’s remembered something fishy about the night Sunday died, but she too is killed before she has a chance to tell anyone. As the villagers turn on one another, Agatha must work out who hated Sunday most – and it’s a very long list.

These books have much the same flavour has the Hamish Macbeth ones, just moving the action from the Highlands to the Cotswolds and having the main character be a private detective instead of a policeman. One of the issues here is entirely on my side, in that I’ve thrown myself down in the middle of the series, and while the crimes appear to be independent, there is evidently a through-line with the secondary characters that I need to know about. Hell, one of them actually dies in this one, and I didn’t feel the emotional impact one presumably does if they’ve got to know the people.

As ever with Beaton though, and this is surprising given how prolific she is, there is an awful lot going on in this novel. The main murder gets overshadowed fairly quickly by another that (no real spoiler) turns out to be entirely unrelated. It’s like the novel got invaded by a second one and only when that’s been cleared up can we return to the main story line. The whole novel takes place over the course of a year which, in fairness, does add realism to the police work and doesn’t see everything wrapped up in a week (trials and DNA tests don’t work like that), but it means there is a lot of time to kill. During the time, Agatha has major surgery and develops swine flu, and neither of these seem to affect the story at all, instead being glossed over in a few short paragraphs. Heaven knows, there are stories to tell here. Agatha Christie one had Poirot solve a murder while he was in bed with a cold – surely giving Agatha Raisin one of these handicaps to battle against adds further jeopardy?

All in all, the titular mystery itself is good, but it feels like three novels’ worth of stuff trying to happen all at the same time and it ends up all being a bit cluttered. Sure, I’ll return, but I may have to head back into the series for some earlier stuff to work out a few of the motivations. Still a good example of what happens to people when they get a little bit of power or fame and it all goes to their head. People will stop at nothing to get the happiness they think they deserve.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Death Of A Dreamer” by M. C. Beaton (2006)

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“It had been a particularly savage winter in the county of Sutherland at the very north of Scotland.”

For the fourth time this year, I return to the village of Lochdubh. In the real world, life in small villages in remote corners of the country is quiet and peaceful, where the most exciting thing to happen is the annual village fete. Fiction, however, has a different idea about villages and, like St Mary Mead and Midsomer before it, Lochdubh turns out to be quite a haven for murderers.

Artist Effie Garrard moved into the village when the weather was good, but the locals didn’t expect her to stay around once she learnt how harsh Highland winters were. When everything thaws, however, not only is PC Hamish Macbeth surprised to see that she’s still there – but not without having spent some of the winter in Brighton – but she seems determined to stay. Regarded as a talented artist, she becomes affronted when another painter, Jock Fleming, moves to the village as well. She cools towards him, however, and finds herself in love with him. Indeed, she’s so certain that this is the man of her dreams that she begins to imagine they’re in love already, and he’s even proposed to her.

Effie’s infatuation and delirious visions cause problems, however when Jock’s ex-wife Dora turns up, followed by his agent Betty. By now, the whole village knows that Effie’s story about her engagement and pregnancy are completely fabricated, and so it is Jock who is the prime suspect when Effie’s body is found in the hills. She had been drinking from a bottle of antifreeze-tainted wine and died of a combination of poison and exposure. As Hamish Macbeth begins to suss out who had the strongest motive to get her out of the way, more secrets and another body emerge, and it seems that these newcomers are all causing trouble. Hamish is also struggling with the fact that two of his ex-girlfriends are back in the village, and one of the suspects in the murder case seems to have her sights set on him too.

Often in these books, there is a very limited number of suspects and it sometimes feels like the solution has been pulled out of thin air. The trouble with setting a murder mystery series in a small village means that the locals reoccur each time and therefore by their very nature are unlikely to be suspected of anything. One must wonder, though, if they get annoyed by Hamish questioning them every six months. Here, though, Beaton has provided us with a good number of new people to suspect, and it works much better. Even more staggeringly, I actually got the solution right!

The other thing I find to be a recurring issue in these books is that inclusion of smaller crimes and tiny subplots that get solved in the space of three pages. Beaton is clearly full of ideas, and in many ways it builds up the world by showing Hamish and the villagers have other things to deal with other than just the central crime, but sometimes these smaller vignettes can detract from the main story and feels a bit like padding. Nonetheless, like I said, they bring the world to life.

Another darkly funny and interesting novel from Beaton showing how dangerous our fantasies can be.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Death Of A Bore” by M. C. Beaton (2006)

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“There used to be quite a lot going on in a highland village during the long, dark winter months.”

Since I can’t be in Scotland as often as I’d like, it’s time to return via literature. It’s a lot cheaper too, and I get to spend some more time in the company of the delightful PC Hamish Macbeth. Once again, murder has come to Lochdubh, and the village is shaken.

John Heppel is a writer of literary fiction of dubious quality. Based on his youth growing up in the slums of Glasgow, his magnum opus is Tenement Days, but while some people worship it, others think it’s a lot of nonsense. Keen on the sound of his own voice, Heppel begins a writing class for the village and Hamish Macbeth is stunned to learn that nearly everyone in Lochdubh thinks they’ve got a novel in them. Heppel, however, makes enemies when he uses the class to instead talk about himself and pour scorn on everyone else’s creative attempts.

It, therefore, can’t come as much of a surprise when Heppel is found dead in his home, a suicide note on his computer and his mouth full of black ink. Since the villagers took umbrage with him and even pelted him with tomatoes on local news, it seems that all of them are on the suspect list, but Hamish knows these people and doesn’t think any of them are capable of murder. He instead turns his attention to the people at Strathbane Television where Heppel had just written a script for the soap opera Down in the Glen. Could someone there have a grudge? Hamish must reunite with an old flame to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The book remains as charming as the others in the series, and Hamish and his unorthodox policing methods are still fun and enjoyable. He freely admits that, while he pretends he maintains his job as a simple village copper (despite proving time and time again that he could be in a much more senior role) because he wants to ensure the village’s old people are looked after, he simply has no ambition. Sometimes that’s absolutely fine. He’s also becoming increasingly attractive, as it seems there’s hardly a new woman to cross his path who doesn’t immediately see him as a potential husband. There seems to be something in their desire to look after him and they see him as lonely. He seems to be doing just fine to me, although perhaps it’s just because he’s still caught up on his ex.

The one problem with these books is that because it’s set in a small village and many of the same characters recur over and over, when they all get named as suspects you immediately know that none of them are responsible as it would upset the status quo too much. I daresay that maybe somewhere in Beaton’s canon she pulls the rug out from under us and we’ll lose one of the regulars to crime, but for now they are safe and you can’t take any of their threats too seriously. However, their actions serve to spread gossip and prove that everyone has secrets.

Another love letter to the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and a funny, charming and intriguing story.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Death Of A Dentist” by M. C. Beaton (1997)

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“It was a chill autumn in the Highlands of Scotland when Police Constable Hamish Macbeth awoke in hell.”

I hate the dentist. Not my dentist himself, he’s a perfectly personable Greek chap who doesn’t make me feel guilty about not flossing, but the whole process in general. I guess I resent someone fiddle about with my mouth, take sharp implements to my teeth and gums and possibly make me bleed, only for me to then have to pay them for the privilege. Still, better than being toothless, I suppose. This mood is fresh as I had my check-up only this morning, and it’s sheer coincidence that I happened to be reading this book today, too. I still decided not to take it to the waiting room anyway, in case I looked suspicious.

Dr Frederick Gilchrist has a reputation has a terrible dentist, prone to pulling out any teeth that are causing problems rather than fixing them. Despite this, he’s also very cheap, so there are a lot of people going about the Highlands with not many teeth. When PC Hamish Macbeth wakes up one morning with unbearable toothache and no desire to drive to through terrible weather to his dentist, he instead decides to see Gilchrist. Unfortunately, the dentist is dead, poisoned in his chair with a hole drilled in every tooth. While no one seems too sorry to have seen him go, there’s apparently no one around who actively wanted him dead.

Elsewhere, things are becoming increasingly confusing. Hamish has heard rumours that two local brothers are running an illegal still. At a nearby hotel, thousands of pounds have been stolen from a safe. And a beautiful, charming woman has just arrived in the village and caught Hamish’s eye. It seems the village bobby has his work cut out for him.

I return to Lochdubh as recently promised and find myself charmed once more by Highland village life. The same problem exists here as does with Midsomer Murders and Murder She Wrote, simply that small places have crime rates higher than Chicago or New York. Nonetheless, you overlook this because of the sheer joy of the thing. The murder and the burglary are both set up in the first chapter, with the illegal still coming along not long after, so you’re trying to solve three crimes, none of which seem to have much evidence to help them along, and the cast of characters is as ever quite wide, although few of them seem to have any reason to commit any of the crimes, so I found myself left scratching my head and wondering who were actually meant to be the suspects. The subplot of Hamish finding another lovely lady to spend his time with also feels unfinished and ends too abruptly for me.

Otherwise, it’s a treat. Hamish is still one of the finest detectives in fiction, and the minutia of village life is played out well, with characters who all know one another and interact naturally, showing how villagers often end up living in one another’s pockets and no one’s business is safe for long. This is best shown by the local seer, Angus Macdonald, who claims to have a second sight but more than likely just has a very good ear for gossip. Fairly bloodless in the manner on a classic Christie, in fact the only bit that truly made me shudder was the fact that the body was found with all his teeth drilled. Makes my molars tingle at the very thought of it.

A quick, joyful read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Death Of A Celebrity” by M. C. Beaton (2002)

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“Hamish Macbeth did not like change, although this was something he would not even admit to himself, preferring to think of himself as a go-ahead, modern man.”

Four years ago, somehow, I read the second book in the Hamish Macbeth series. At the time, I heaped praise on the man, suggesting that he had been forgotten as one literary’s great detectives, and found the book fun and interesting. At the end, I made a promise to return soon. I did not return soon. My grandfather, however, recently discovered M. C. Beaton and Hamish’s world, and now whenever he finds one in a charity shop, buys it, reads it and passes it on to me. The stack is building, so it was time I returned to Lochdubh, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long.

The sleepy Scottish village of Lochdubh is rocked when TV reporter Crystal French turns up to record footage for her new show, Highland Life. Unfortunately for the locals, it seems to be less about what it’s like living in a remote crofter’s village and more about Crystal and her media team digging up every scandal for miles around. Within days she’s made plenty of enemies, not least Hamish Macbeth, the village constable, who tickets her for speeding and does not take kindly to a bribery attempt. In revenge, Crystal plans an episode dedicated to embarrassing Hamish.

It never comes to pass, however, as Crystal’s body is found out in the hills. It was apparently suicide, but the rest of the media team don’t seem so sure – someone that keen on the spotlight surely wouldn’t end their own life? Unfortunately, Crystal has made a lot of enemies in her short time in the Highlands, and so the list of suspects is long. Hamish must also do battle with his new superior, DCI Carson, who isn’t used to Hamish’s methods, and the potential affections of local journalist and astrologer, Elspeth Grant, if he is to solve the murder.

Hamish Macbeth remains a man with the most Scottish name in history and the most unorthodox policing methods. He has little interest in proper procedure if it interferes with solving a case, and as he is the only policeman in the village, it’s generally not a problem. He is, however, a great copper, and always solves the case due to his ability to notice things that others don’t. Being in a small community means he knows everybody and is well-liked, so people don’t tend to lie to him or withhold information. Like most detectives in fiction, he loves the job but has other interests too – in this case, fishing, caring for his animals and cooking. An interesting character thrown in to the mix is DCI Carson, who has never come across a man like Hamish (or a village like Lochdubh) and finds himself, against his will, charmed by both man and village. He has a grudging respect for Hamish, even though his superiors and colleagues often talk the man down. The relationship between the two men is lovely.

The plot is clever enough, but several parts hang on the psychic abilities of Elspeth Grant, and it’s never properly clarified whether there is genuinely something about the occult going on, or if she just knows more than she likes to reveal. If she is genuinely having psychic visions, it gives the book – and I suppose, series – a different tone, as adding supernatural elements to a murder mystery is a little like cheating. Nonetheless, it all holds together and the clues are all there, even if they’re perhaps a little more blatant than they were during the Golden Age. Beaton is still a brilliant writer though, and the story fizzes and pops with charm, humour and suspense.

Sorry, Hamish. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Death Of A Cad” by M. C. Beaton (1987)

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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.