Saturday, March 13, 2010

Death of a Witch (book) by M.C. Beaton

This Hamish Macbeth book was a bit darker, in some ways, than the previous ones I've read.

Synopsis:

Hamish Macbeth gets back from a horrible vacation in Spain to find that someone new has moved to Lochdubh - a woman named Catriona Beldame. She's got the local women all upset because the local men have been visiting her late at night. However, they haven't been visiting her for sex, as Hamish first assumed, but rather for her own herbal version of Viagra, which, unfortunately, has some nasty side effects and doesn't work as well as she leads the men to think it will.

Hamish can't legally do much about her, since he can't seem to get his hands on any proof of what she's doing. It's not long before Hamish finds Catriona dead in her cottage. When the cottage mysteriously goes up in flames before more police can arrive to gather evidence and take the body away for an autopsy, the villagers think it's yet another sign that Catriona is a witch, and Hamish has a hard time getting anyone to talk to him because of that.

Even when the perfectly mundane (and sinister) reason for the fire is uncovered, Hamish still has a hard time getting anyone to talk. There are secrets in Lochdubh that, to Hamish's shock, he wasn't even aware of, and it's those secrets that lead to multiple deaths in the area. Ina, a local woman who, by all accounts, had a happy marriage and was about as inoffensive as you could get, is also found murdered, as is Fiona, a woman several of the local men had been seeing for sex. A fourth woman is killed when she tries to make herself seem more interesting and important by claiming that she knows something about the identity of the killer that she hasn't revealed.

Catriona was hated by so many people that narrowing the list down is more than a bit difficult. If her and Fiona's murders were committed by the same person, it would seem that the motive had something to do with sex - possibly the killer felt Catriona and Fiona's behaviors were morally offensive. That doesn't explain Ina, however, and Hamish is stumped.

When the truth is finally revealed, Hamish is shocked and horrified. Hamish had hoped that the killer wasn't a villager, but that turns out to be the case. Tilly, Ina's friend and next door neighbor, was responsible for all four murders. Both Tilly and Ina had been beating their husbands to keep them in line. Their husbands had, out of shame, never told anyone, and they had been raised not to hit women, so they didn't fight back. Tilly killed Catriona because her husband had disobeyed her and gone to see her. Tilly then killed Ina because Ina felt that she should tell the police about the murder. She killed Fiona because she found out Ina's husband had been going to her, and she killed the fourth woman because she was afraid she really did know something.

On the more personal side of things, Hamish has lots of women issues, as usual. This time around, there's a new woman in town, Lesley Seaton, who's also the newest forensic investigator in the area. Hamish tries his luck with her, but things seem a bit hot and cold with her. What Hamish doesn't quite realize at first is that Lesley thinks he's good-looking, but, like the other women in his life, she doesn't think he's ambitious enough. She thinks she can change him, and it takes a while for her to realize that's unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, Priscilla and Elspeth show up, inciting Lesley's jealousy. Hamish is jealous as well when it seems as though both Priscilla and Elspeth have developed an interest in Perry, an extremely good-looking new reporter.

In the end, Hamish realizes that Lesley only wants the him she thinks she can turn him into. After Perry mistakenly comes to the conclusion that Hamish is trying to hit on him, Elspeth and Priscilla both realize that the man they'd been fawning over is actually gay. Not only that, Perry turns out to be an unethical reporter - he writes an article that makes it seem like no one has any sex in Lochdubh at all and claims that may be the reason for all the recent murders. Elspeth digs up proof that his various quotes were taken out of context, Perry is fired, and the villagers are all monetarily compensated for the embarrassment the article caused.

Oh, and also, Hamish deals with a couple poachers. Actually, it'd be more accurate to say they deal with themselves - one of them accidentally kills the other, and then the remaining poacher falls to his death from the helicopter that was going to take him away.

Things do end relatively happily for Hamish, though. Hamish's mother shows up and gifts him with another trip to Spain, this time supplied by an olive oil company because of a slogan she wrote. Reluctantly, Hamish takes this second vacation, sure it will be as horrible as the one he took before the start of this book. The olive oil company doesn't give him much time to himself, and he's forced to pretend that he was the one who wrote the winning slogan. When it finally seems as though Hamish might get some female company his own age, one of the elderly ladies who took up all his time during his previous vacation finds him and ruins things. It's not until the vacation is nearly over when he meets Caroline, a Welsh woman, that things get fun for him. The book ends with Hamish probably finally getting lucky while on vacation. I have no idea if Caroline will show up in any future books.

Commentary:

For a cozy, this book revealed an awfully dark side of the village - I don't think I've read a single Hamish Macbeth book yet where the murderer was actually a villager. Husband beating is something I don't see mentioned a lot in books in general, much less cozy mysteries (if I'm wrong about classifying this series as a "cozy mystery series", do let me know). And widespread, secret prostitution on Hamish's beat...? Wow.

Hamish really isn't lucky with women - all of them sneer at his love for his pets, and everyone either wants him to loosen up about them or wants to completely change him. No one likes that he just wants to stay in Lochdubh, living just the way he always has. I did like that he finally explained what made him want to become a Lochdubh police officer, and this is the first book I've read that had his mom in it. I began this series very late and have yet to read most of the earlier books, so, while none of this may have been new to long-time readers of this series, it was new to me.

Speaking of new things, I wonder if Caroline will show up in any future books? I doubt he'll have more luck with her than with any of the others, and I'm thinking she's probably just a one night stand, but it's possible. She could shake things up a bit in his love life - things are getting a bit old with Elspeth and Priscilla. The whole "on again, off again" thing can be fun for a bit, but that's all that ever seems to happen between Hamish and either Elspeth or Priscilla. I don't know that I necessarily am wishing for him to end up with Caroline, but I wouldn't mind something new cropping up to complicate Hamish's love life, if he's going to continue not choosing between Elspeth and Priscilla.

I was really surprised that there wasn't more about Blair's new wife - also, it seems that Blair is actually kind of happy in his new marriage. She tries to get him to be healthier (eat better, quit drinking alcohol), and he tries to avoid her nagging, like any husband. Maybe Blair will settle into marriage better than I thought he would, considering that he didn't get married by choice.

Overall, it's a very twisty and interesting mystery, and I had fun trying to figure out why Ina was involved in all of this, although this isn't really the kind of mystery where the reader should be able to figure out the murderer - not enough information is given. With this series, it's the characters and the location that are the draw, as well as the humor. I do wonder, though, if Hamish will be able to look at the villagers the same way from now on, knowing what sorts of things might be hiding underneath the surface?

My read-alikes list is lazy - it's the same thing I used for the previous M.C. Beaton book I wrote about.

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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