Saturday, February 13, 2010

Death of a Gentle Lady (book) by M.C. Beaton

If I were a more consistent blogger (or if I had not abandoned my previous method of keeping track of my reading with an enormous Excel spreadsheet), I would have realized I had already read this book before I requested it via ILL. I spent the first few pages wondering why everything felt so familiar. I kept getting tingles of "I know who gets killed and who the killer is," which is unusual for me - I'm the kind of person who doesn't put a great deal of effort into trying to guess the killer, so the revelation at the end of the book is usually a surprise for me. If it's not a surprise, then the killer is probably incredibly obvious, or the author did a horrible job of hiding him/her.

Once I figured out I had read the book before, I wasn't sure if I was going to continue reading it. I opted to continue, since I went to the effort of requesting it and our ILL department went to the effort of getting it for me. Plus, it wasn't like I remembered every single detail of the book.

I started this series very far into it - with Death of a Dreamer, I think. At some point, I tried starting over from the beginning but found that I missed some of the characters and story developments that happen later in the series. So, there's a huge chunk of this series I've never read. One of the benefits of that is that, if this series is getting as tired as Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, I don't really notice.

Overall, I like the characters (even though Hamish has an annoying inability to choose who he wants to marry and/or date, combined with an annoying inability to even be happy with not choosing). I'm looking forward to reading more in this series, and maybe one day I'll even make myself try the earlier books again.

Synopsis:

(Warning: I give away the ending.)

Mrs. Margaret Gentle is one of those people who is only nice on the surface. Scratch beneath that surface, and a completely different person is revealed.

Mrs. Gentle lives outside of Braikie, and everyone in Braikie and Lochdubh likes her well enough - everyone except local policeman Hamish Macbeth, who witnesses how insulting and mean she can be towards others, including her own daughter. After Hamish sees Mrs. Gentle as she really is, she retaliates by complaining about him to his superiors. Superintendent Daviot tells Hamish that in six months he will be transferred to Strathbane and his police station in Lochdubh will be closed down. Not only will he not be able to watch over the area and people he really cares about, he won't be able to take his beloved dog and cat with him. Of course, Hamish doesn't take this lying down. He begins to gossip about his situation and Mrs. Gentle's part in it, and it isn't long before Mrs. Gentle is much less liked than before.

Cracks begin to show in Mrs. Gentle's "nice elderly lady" facade. She kicks her daughter out and threatens to report Ayesha, her maid, to the police for not having a work permit. Ayesha, in tears, turns herself in to Hamish, who, being an all-around nice guy (and it probably doesn't hurt that Ayesha is a lovely damsel in distress), has someone alter Ayesha's passport to give her a little more time. Hamish then has a bright idea: he offers to marry Ayesha. If he marries her, she would become a British citizen, and Daviot and the rest would leave Hamish alone for a bit, since there are no quarters for married men in the police accomodations in Strathbane. The two of them could then get a divorce. Ayesha agrees to the idea.

Mrs. Gentle, hoping to annoy Hamish by getting back in the locals' good graces, promises Ayesha a hefty sum of money as a wedding gift and says that the wedding reception can be held at her home. However, Mrs. Gentle had no idea what she was getting herself into - everyone plans to come to the reception. In order to restore her own good mood, she tells Ayesha that she can't give her the money she promised her as a wedding gift. Ayesha, angry, threatens to tell everyone something she overheard that Mrs. Gentle doesn't want known.

The day of the wedding, Ayesha doesn't show up. People feel bad for Hamish, but Hamish is thrilled - he's off the hook! No one can find Ayesha anywhere, however, and it looks like maybe there's more going on than Ayesha getting cold feet. More and more information is uncovered about Ayesha, who is not actually a young Turkish woman named Ayesha, but rather a former Russian prostitute named Irena, on the run from the Russian mob. Hamish suspects that something has happened to her, but he's shocked when the person found dead is not Irena, but Mrs. Gentle. Someone has strangled Mrs. Gentle and thrown her off a cliff.

Not long after Mrs. Gentle's body is found, so is Irena's, folded up into a trunk in Mrs. Gentle's wine cellar. It's unlikely that a small, frail woman like Mrs. Gentle could have killed Irena, and, even if she had, who killed Mrs. Gentle? Likewise, if Irena killed Mrs. Gentle, who then killed her?

Once the townspeople find out about "Ayesha"'s true identity, Hamish is the butt of many jokes. It's embarrassing for him, and it doesn't help that the area is now crawling with reporters, including Elspeth, one of Hamish's ex-girlfriends. Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, another of Hamish's on-again-off-again loves, also reappears. Despite gossip that Hamish may be responsible for Irena's death, neither Elspeth nor Priscilla believes Hamish could've been capable of that, although both women were hurt and shocked when they heard that he was getting married.

While the murder investigations are going on, Harold, an arrogant, annoying writer visiting Lochdubh, helps the townspeople put on a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth (cue the Macbeth jokes). Hamish is jealous because Harold and another man are both showing interest in Priscilla - Harold even gives the part of Lady Macbeth to Priscilla. Hamish also finds his emotions all knotted up when he's around Elspeth. However, he hasn't yet gotten over the problems that caused both of his relationships to fail - he feels Priscilla is too cold (I haven't read the book where things go badly between them, but he seems to think she sees sex as something to stoically endure), and he still feels Elspeth is too critical of his relationship with his pets.

As if his romantic life wasn't making things complicated enough, Hamish also has to deal with the arrival of a visitor from Russia, Inspector Anna Krokovsky. The Inspector was in London, observing British police methods, but she decided to help with the investigation of Irena and Mrs. Gentle's murder, because of Irena's connection to the Russian mafia and her nationality. Unfortunately, Hamish doesn't really like Krokovsky's methods (he gets most of his information from friendly gossip with the locals, while she believes in a more hard-nosed approach; also, she basically tries to kill Blair by encouraging him to nearly drink himself to death shortly after being released from the hospital for alcohol poisoning). It doesn't help that the Inspector seems awfully fond of Hamish. She'd rather accompany him than any other more highly positioned policeman. Hamish is also a bit shocked when she asks to have sex with him (actually, it almost feels like an order).

Suspects in Mrs. Gentle's killing abound. Nobody who really knew her liked her. There is evidence that her killer may have been a woman with a mole on her face, but no one knows who the woman is or where she went. It seems likely that Irena was killed because she knew something she wasn't supposed to.

Before long, one of Mrs. Gentle's relatives, Mark Gentle, becomes the primary suspect in both murders. It looks like the man killed Mrs. Gentle before she could change her will and cut her out and then killed Irena because she was blackmailing him with a recording of him saying he would kill Mrs. Gentle for cutting him out of her will. However, Hamish doesn't believe that they have the right person in custody, and the case soon unravels. Someone keeps trying to kill Hamish, and he is finally forced to go into hiding. However, Hamish's superior, Blair, who is determined to get rid of Hamish, spreads rumors about his location, and there is another attempt on Hamish's life.

Doing a bit of investigating outside his own territory, Hamish discovers that Mark Gentle has been killed. Without any obvious primary suspects left, Hamish and the rest of the police are left high and dry. However, Hamish begins to suspect the writer, Harold, after he sees the man dressed up as a woman for the part of Lady Macbeth (Harold had upset the other two women who knew the part). Once Hamish sees Harold's small feet, he's sure he's the murder. It's revealed that "Harold Jury" is really Cyril Edmonds, the bastard child of Mrs. Gentle. She left him to a life filled with abuse and neglect, and he was determined to get even with her. He killed Harold Jury and assumed his identity. Irena had agreed to help him get his revenge, but when she told him that she was going to marry Hamish, he became afraid she would betray him, so he killed her. He repeatedly tried to kill Hamish because he thought Hamish knew more than he was letting on, due to misleading rumors Hamish had spread. He killed Mark Gentle just in case Irena had told him anything incriminating.

In an attempt to escape, Cyril goes to Mrs. Gentle's castle on the cliff but dies when the cliff finally crumbles and the castle goes down with it. Things aren't over for Hamish, however. He is kidnapped by a cheap prostitute named Ruby, under Blair's orders. Blair hopes that if Hamish is gone long enough, Hamish's police station will be shut down and he can finally live peacefully without him around. However, Hamish gets loose, finds Ruby, and encourages her to blackmail Blair into marrying her and allowing her to live a respectable life. Ruby does just that, going by her original name of Mary Ashford. Blair, having no other choice, marries Mary, much to Hamish's glee.

Commentary:

Like I said, I've only read a few of the books in this series. There's really nothing in each individual book that excites me - it's one of the reasons I haven't felt the need to buy any of the books in this series. However, there are general things I tend to like. I like Hamish for basically being a nice guy. I like the hints of romance (although too much more of Hamish's indecision, and I may start disliking the romance). I like the humor, and I like the quirkiness of Lochdubh's residents.

I first started reading this series as part of the "mysteries" portion of the readers' advisory class I took - if I remember right, this is considered a "cozy" mystery series, which brought me up against some of the misconceptions I had about cozies. The murders in the Hamish Macbeth books aren't described in queasily graphic detail, but they're not completely bloodless, and Hamish Macbeth's world isn't devoid of real world ugliness - this particular book, for example, has prostitutes, the Russian mafia, and an alcoholic character. Even so, the overall feel of the book and its setting isn't dark and ugly - Lochdubh seems like a fairly nice place, even with all the murders. It's like the murders are something separate and don't touch the village enough to taint it.

Overall, I liked this book, although I can't say that I'd rave about it to someone. I could see myself recommending the series to someone, but not necessarily a particular book - it's general aspects of this series, not the plots of specific books, than appeal to me. That's part of the reason why this commentary is so short - there's just not much I can say about this particular book.

Read-alikes:
  • The Quiche of Death (book) by M. C. Beaton - This is the first in Beaton's Agatha Raisin series. Agatha Raisin has decided to retire from her London public relations job and live a quiet life in the Cotswold village of Carsely. Hoping to gain acceptance from the villagers, Agatha enters a local bake-off, undeterred by her inability to cook or bake. When Agatha's quiche turns out to be poisoned and kills the bake-off judge, she's determined to prove on her own that the judge was murdered (by someone other than her) in order to avoid having to admit that the quiche was store-bought. I know, it's cheating, suggesting a book by the same author. Still, if you like the village atmosphere in Death of a Gentle Lady, you might want to try this series.
  • Evans Above (book) by Rhys Bowen - This is the first book in Bowen's Constable Evans series. In this book, Evan Evans, a young, unattached North Wales police constable, becomes suspicious when two men die in separate mountain "accidents" on the same day and tries to convince his superiors that their deaths are connected and are the result of murder. The setting is a Welsh village rather than a Scottish one, and Evans is a newcomer to the village, but he deals with some of the same personal issues as Hamish, such as superiors who don’t trust his hunches and villagers who’d like to see him paired off with someone.
  • The Murder at the Vicarage (book) by Agatha Christie - Col. Protheroe, a generally disliked man, is found murdered, apparently shot in the back of the head while writing a note in the Vicar's study. The only problem is that this seems impossible - no one heard the shot, and no one saw anyone go near the study. It seems as though everyone had a motive for murdering Col. Protheroe, and several red herrings make things even more complicated. Those who liked Hamish's methods (using his insider status in the village and sensitive attention to how others react to his questioning to find out information that others could not) might like this book, also set in a small village.
  • The Cat Who Blew the Whistle (book) by Lillian Jackson Braun - This is actually the 17th book in the series, but, like the Hamish Macbeth series, you can start almost anywhere in the series and not be too confused. In this book, newspaper columnist Jim Qwilleran ("Qwill") and his mystery-solving Siamese Koko, are convinced that Floyd Trevelyan, the owner of a refurbished train that was supposed to become a new local attraction, did not leave town to escape prosecution for fraud and are determined to investigate. Meanwhile, Qwill also has cause to worry about his girlfriend Polly's health (I'm pretty sure she's his girlfriend, but correct me if I'm wrong). Fans of quirky characters, a quiet location (aside from all the murders), and Hamish’s soft spot for animals might want to try this.

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