Saturday, July 04, 2009

Mystery Book Review: Death of a Witch by M. C. Beaton

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Death of a Witch by M. C. Beaton. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Death of a Witch by M. C. Beaton

by
A Hamish Macbeth Mystery

Grand Central (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 0-446-19613-4 (0446196134)
ISBN-13: 978-0-446-19613-0 (9780446196130)
Publication Date: February 2009
List Price: $24.99

Review: Twenty-five books ago, Scottish author, Marion Chesney, writing as M. C. Beaton, penned her first Constable Hamish Macbeth mystery, Death of a Gossip, in 1985. Set in the Scottish Highlands village of Lochdubh, the novel introduced the constable, his arch antagonist, Chief Inspector Blair, and Priscilla Haliburton-Smythe, the love of Hamish’s life. Since then Hamish has been twice promoted, twice demoted, and along with his dog Lugs and his pet wild cat, Sonsie, has solved the suspicious deaths of among others a maid, a dreamer, a bore, a dustman, a snob, a prankster, a nag, a travelling man, and even a village. Now, in his same inimitable style and with his same longing for Priscilla, loathing for Blair and love of his village and its residents, Hamish scours the Scottish Highlands to find the murderer of a witch, Catriona Beldame. It’s another fun-filled search for Chesney/Beaton fans of the Macbeth series and an entertaining introduction to the prolific author with several pen names and a shelf full of series and stand-alone novels.

Before he encounters Catriona’s case, Hamish warms up for the main event by capturing three bank robbers and displaying his compassion while covering up for a colleague, the force’s newest recruit, “wee Alice Donaldson.” Flushed with success, and despite a warning from the long-time village seer, Angus Macdonald, that, “Black days are coming,” he moves on to meet Madame Beldame. She has been supplying the local men with “therapy and herbal treatments” and “a secret recipe” for sexual dysfunction. The recipe, however, has turned sour for the men and for their put-upon wives suddenly fending off husbands seeking their “martial rights,” as one mislabels his needs. So, Hamish sets out to intervene and to have Catriona move on. When his attempts fail and he temporarily succumbs to her spell, Hamish publicly blurts out in unguarded frustration, “God, I could kill that woman.” God aside, it’s a statement with its own recipe for disaster when, shortly afterward, Hamish is the first to discover a naked Catriona dead, and before the corpse is removed from her cottage, watches as a disastrous fire consumes the body and any clues to her death.

For CI Blair, the event proves Macbeth’s incompetence. Even hopefully his guilt. But for the constable, it’s the challenge to clear his name and that of the Lochdubh villagers, even though many of them “thought it a fitting end for the ‘witch.’” As he always does, Hamish rises to the challenge, sifting the heather from the thistles and following leads to a variety of suspects and to several additional murders of suspected drug runners and a brothel operator “on the game.” And while Hamish ducks and runs from the maniacal wrath of a besotted, inept Blair, potential perpetrators pop up across the Highlands. So, too, do romantic partners pining for Hamish. A forensic specialist is willing to help him find more than the fuse for the fire that consumed Catriona’s cottage, and a visiting reporter is ever willing to work with him on more than just the “witch’s” story. And, as is to be expected, Priscilla arrives on the scene, too, sometimes at the most inopportune times, depending upon others’ points of view. For Hamish, of course, there are always Lugs and Sonsie to look after and the humour of how their need for care dampens a romantic interlude with one of the women.

While it takes time to get used to the vernacular of Beaton’s characters, it’s well worth the effort. The series with its long standing characters and their idiosyncrasies is tried and true, and Death of a Witch is a welcome addition to its well-deserved reputation.

Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (mw_cunningham@telus.net) for contributing his review of Death of a Witch.

Review Copyright © 2009 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved — Reprinted with Permission

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Synopsis (from the publisher): Returning from a foreign holiday, the redheaded Constable Hamish Macbeth senses a dark cloud of evil hanging over his Scottish village of Lochdubh. A newcomer, Catriona Beldame, has cast a spell over the town, and word of her magical powers spreads as fast as the Highland fog. The local men are visiting Catriona’s cottage at all hours of the night and the women are outraged, ready to cast the witch into the sea loch. Hamish himself is charmed by her, too, until he begins to suspect that she is a danger to the town.

The townsfolk simply don’t believe that Catriona is a serious threat, saying that the loveless constable has turned against all women, and before he can prove them wrong, she is murdered. Catriona, in her own wicked way, curses Hamish from beyond the grave, making him the prime suspect in her murder case. Hamish will call upon the assistance of a pretty female forensic expert as he attempts to clear his name –perhaps he will find romance at last! Lochdubh’s loyal constable won’t give up until he can bring peace and quiet back to his beloved village.

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