Whether you’re looking for a quick break, a good bus book, or just a good story, you can find a lot of fun in M.C. Beaton’s series of stories featuring Constable Hamish Macbeth of the fictional town of Lochdubh, Scotland. You’ll find them in the Mystery section, and you’ll soon see why: Every title in the Macbeth series begins with the words “Death of.”
It’s good to read them in order (beginning with “Death of a Gossip” and “Death of a Cad”) if you can find them; various characters and circumstances change over time, realistically, and it’s jarring to go from one character’s mourned absence to her comfortable presence because you’ve read your way back in time.
On the other hand, if reading your way back in time is your goal, these are your stories. Lochdubh could be a sort of Scottish Mayberry, and Andy Griffith’s Sheriff Taylor an American Hamish Macbeth. It’s a small town, and so little goes wrong that Hamish, the only policeman in town, includes visiting shut-ins on his beat. But murder intervenes — often in the form of an “incomer,” someone new to the village. (That may mean he’s been there for years, but he just didn’t start there.)
Beaton’s plots are economical and the books are small — “Death of a Bore” (Warner Books, 2005) is comparatively long at 242 pages, while “Death of a Hussy” (Ivy Books, 1990) ends on p. 151 and “Death of a Cad” (Ivy Books, 1987) totals 187 pages.
All of the stories make a fun, reassuring distraction from whatever is going badly in your day. Hamish isn’t ambitious, but his talents fit well in his beloved hometown.
Better yet, Beaton’s clear and clever use of languages makes the stories a joy. Even if you’re not as sure of Scottish words as a Scottish-American (namely me), read them fearlessly — good, solid Scots words are used, but definitions in Standard English are never far away.
In “Death of a Hussy,” for example, Hamish must contend with a disgusting woman constable who works on the case with him. When he stops at a pub, the barman tells him “Ye’re sore missed, Hamish. That blond scunner’s aye poking her nose in here, looking for trouble.”
(Scunner, by the way, makes a great insult. It’s someone disgusting, but it’s also the verb for being nauseated. It solves the whole nauseous vs. nauseated problem, which can be tough to remember when you’re feeling it.)
Another vivid word (which I’ve seen in print elsewhere only in “Dangerous Work”) shows up in “Death of a Cad” when Hamish’s nasty boss asks him “What the devil are you talking about, you great gowk?” That’s a simpleton or a fool; Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary points out its similarity to the more familiar (to us) “gawking.”
So stretch your vocabulary as you ease your mind; spend some time in Beaton’s Lochdubh and see how the occasional murder can test the resilience of a small town and its (generally) delightful people.
If you run out of Hamish Macbeth’s adventures, you can turn next to Beaton’s other series, featuring the English amateur investigator Agatha Raisin. But Agatha’s the type of woman who would insist on her own post, just as she seems to be insistent upon her own books. More on her another time.
For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.
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