The latest installment of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mystery series, Death of a Kingfisher, marks the Highland Constable’s 28th appearance in print. Hamish made his first appearance in Death of a Gossip in 1985 and has been avoiding promotion in order to stay in his beloved Lochdubh ever since.
I’ve read most of this series over the years, finding them to be pleasant and undemanding and often quite funny—mostly they fit into the cozy category thanks to Beaton’s clever move of establishing Hamish from the very start as rather lazy and uninterested in leaving Lochdubh. As a village constable, he’s often left out of the more official side of the investigations he becomes involved in, meaning he has to work outside the framework of the police. Over the years, concessions to advances in forensics have been slowly introduced to the series, but for the most part, Hamish still works the old-fashioned way, consulting village gossips and the local seer and relying on his intuition and knowledge of the area to get things done. This allows Beaton to avoid coping with the messy and sometimes dull procedural details and stick with the cozy format.
Death of a Kingfisher begins with a very unusual murder: a kingfisher is found hanging by its neck in a local beauty spot, Buchan’s Wood, which has recently been the focus of efforts by the local council to bring in tourists and much needed business to the village of Braikie. Renamed The Fairy Glen by a zealous promoter, Mary Leinstar, the area now draws in busloads of tourists and boasts a gift shop. More acts of vandalism occur, and eventually a crotchety property owner whose land abuts the glen is murdered in a most unseemly way.
As the premise for a mystery, that’s not a bad start, and I wish Beaton had left it there and explored the very real issue facing many areas of how to best promote their local attractions without destroying the character of a town. Unfortunately, this book eventually goes completely off the rails as Hamish relentlessly plods his way toward discovering who killed Mrs. Colchester. There is no shortage of suspects: Mary’s left most of the widow’s money in trust for the glen, the victim’s son-in-law is broke and desperately in need of money, and her daughter and grandchildren clearly loathe her. But then a potential witness is murdered, and then another, and another—in fact, for a cozy, this book has an enormous body count. And the plotting and motivations become completely ridiculous as a result as Beaton struggles to gather up her wandering plotlines and tie them all together.
You can almost see her struggling, in fact. The writing becomes less lyrical and choppier, the plot is unwound in lumpy paragraphs with little more than bald exposition, and by the end, we’ve got a Russian billionaire functioning as a motivation-less super villain who proves to be most incompetent at the super villain thing. As a story, it becomes not only unrealistic, but slightly pathetic.
Part of the problem for an aging series like this one is how to keep it fresh for the audience. Some nods to those things that brought people into the books in the first place have to be given—in this case, Hamish himself is the main attraction, as are the quirky residents of Lochdubh. Hamish continues to be a charming character, and token mentions of series favorites like the Curry Sisters, Angela Brodie, and Angus Macdonald are there. But it’s a sad fact that when setting a series in a very tiny village, that world has to expand or risk what I think of as Jessica Fletcher Syndrome—where so many murders occur in the same small town that eventually the writer runs out of potential victims and murderers—they’re all either dead or in jail. Beaton dealt with this by expanding the territory Hamish has to cover on his beat in the middle of the series, but she’s reached a point where more and more she’s going to have to introduce outside sources of conflict. Sometimes she’s handled this successfully by keeping the plot nice and tight and being careful to tie those outside influences into the village in some fashion.
This time she hasn’t managed that. All of the bad guys here are so far removed from the village that she’s reduced to moving the point of view almost completely away from Hamish at the end while she scrambles after those last few plot threads that got away. And the villains have no real tie to Lochdubh, which means that characters who’ve long been a part of Hamish’s life are suddenly like intruders in their own village. So when Priscilla turns up for her token appearance, she seems out of place in the plot. The same with Angela. They just don’t work here, and added to the tired references to Inspector Blair’s loathing of Hamish, Jimmy’s seemingly endless thirst for his whiskey, and Hamish’s sad-sack love life, what the reader ends up with is an entry in a once sly, charming series that just feels exhausted and pointless.