Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Ramblin' in the Highlands: Death of a Travelling Man (1993) and Death of a Bore (2005), by MC Beaton

The enduring popularity of MC Beaton's Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series--Beaton has been published for three decades in both the UK and US and year after year lists with UK libraries as one of the most borrowed authors in the country--provides clear evidence of the enduring popularity of the cozy (Beaton prefers the word "comfy") mystery.  The cozy often is seen as having its origin in between-the-wars, or Golden Age, mystery.  However, the specific term doesn't seem to have had real currency in those days, like it certainly does today.

The English village mystery which is so closely associated with the cozy genre today really began developing in more conscious fashion after the end of the Golden Age as it is customarily defined, in the 1940s and 1950s, when Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth began increasing their output of their respective tales about the elderly spinster sleuths Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Though people often seem to forget this, very few Miss Miss Marple and Miss Silver mysteries were published before the outbreak of World War Two.

Today of course cozies, both the American and British variants as well as those set in other places, are a huge industry, with numerous writers (and readers).  There are so many of them, there are now different cozy sub-genres, like pet cozies, craft cozies and cooking cozies.  I'm looking at the Amazon page for Ellery Adams' novel Breach of Crust (part of the "Charmed Pie Shoppe--yes, shop naturally would be cutely spelled shoppe--Mystery Series) and am seeing that Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought the following novels:

Mary Ellen Hughes, Scene of the Brine (A Pickled and Preserved Mystery)
Jenn McKinlay's Vanilla Beaned (A Cupcake Bakery Mystery)
Kylie Logan's Irish Stewed (An Ethic Eats Mystery)
Connie Archer's A Clue in the Stew (A Soup Lover's Mystery)
Susan Furlong's Rest in Peach (A Georgia Peach Mystery)
Avery Aames' For Cheddar or Worse (A Cheese Shop Mystery-no "pe" added this time!)
Peg Cochran's Berry the Hatchet (A Cranberry Cove mystery)
Kristi Abbott's Kernel of Truth (A Popcorn Shop Mystery) 

The list could go on (and on) from here. Obviously cozies have become quite the cottage industry, and you can be certain that that cottage has original Tudor beams and homey chintz. There will be a cat and perhaps a dog roaming about, along with tea and home baked scones fresh from the oven.

Long before there was all this cozy customization, there was MC Beaton, a hugely prolific author who has now entered her eightieth year, who though by no means alone (Carolyn Hart and the late Charlotte MacLeod immediately come to mind), has been one of the foremost modern cozy writers, striding over this green and pleasant landscape like a cozy colossus.  

Beaton launched the Hamish Macbeth series in 1985 with Death of a Gossip and the Agatha Raisin series seven years later, with the memorably titled Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death.  This year Beaton, still going strong, published what I believe is her 32nd Hamish Macbeth novel, and her 26th Agatha Raisin novel appeared last year.

This isn't even including her (rather comfy) Edwardian mystery series (there were merely four of those), not to mention her myriad Regency romances (qwyte comfy also).

Beaton fans differ as to the respective merits of Hamish and Agatha, but for some reason I've always been more attracted to the Hamish tales, perhaps in part because I simply adore the series' American publisher's charming dust jacket illustrations, clearly deliberately done in the cozily patoral manner of Thomas Kinkade, the"artist of light." Nothing says cozy more than these covers!

Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series flows like a placid stream, one book seemingly never differing much from the other (though there have been some reader complaints since the publication of Death of a Sweep in 2011 that the series has declined).  In my experience with the Beatons, Hamish's beloved Highlands village of Lochdubh, where he is the local constable (in some books a sergeant), comes under threat from some obnoxious outsider who is then murdered.  Some of the villagers will be suspected of the crime by the other police (most of whom are idiots aside from Hamish), and Hamish has to set to work to find the real guilty culprit, who will be another outsider.

as seen on television....
Matrimony-phobic Hamish will usually be juggling some love affair, and he will dash about with his cute pets, who are his real true loves in my opinion: a couple of dogs in some books and later a cat and a dog. The mystery will be solved by Macbeth having a smart intuition which has eluded his colleagues and then asking questions until he gets his man or woman. (In both of the books under consideration here a hidden tape recorder was involved in helpfully securing a confession.) Throughout, Beaton takes opportunity to comment unfavorably about myriad modern aspects of British life.

The outside menace that threatens the village is contained by murder, but the culprit comes from outside the village as well, meaning that, though the villagers may be flawed in various ways, the ultimate sin, murder, is committed by another.

With the expulsions of murderee and murderer the village can go back to its routine ways, at least until Beaton churns out another murder mystery the following year!  It's all highly classic, indeed more classic in form than many of the classics.

In Death of a Travelling Man, the ninth book in the Hamish Macbeth series, a sinister "traveller" living in a bus on the bleeding heart Lochdubh minister's property is murdered with a sledgehammer. What is a traveller, you may ask?  Beaton tells us, with evident disapproval:

Sean (the traveller) would have been called a hippie not so long ago and a beatnik a long time before that.  Now he belonged to that unlovable crowd who euphemistically referred to themselves as travellers, the itinerant race who descended on places like Stonehenge complete with battered unlicensed vehicles, dirt, drugs and dogs....Living on the dole, they travelled aimlessly from place to place.  The reason these nomadic layabouts claimed to be "travellers" or sometimes "new travellers" was that they demanded the privileges and camping rights give to gypsies, privileges often dating back centuries.  Hamish was tolerant of gypsies and knew them all. He had no time for these so-called travellers.

At another point Hamish thinks of the travellers how they

romanticized their life-style and often got other people to believe in that romance.  Let other people pay the taxes to supply them with dole money, let other people build and maintain the roads they drove on, let other people clean up the mess they left behind; they were the Peter Pans who had found a way of never growing out of adolescence, and the rest of the world was one indulgent parent to see to their needs.

Other aspects of modern life scorned in the novel are rock music, films, television, hard-boiled detective fiction, punk fashions and hairdos, urbanization, Madonna--you get the idea. Personally I found this commentary often rote and one-sided (I can't speak of travellers personally, but here's a 2014 news article on a controversy concerning them in Bath); yet for readers tired of the various inconveniences and unpleasantries of modern life and dreaming of quiet days spent in a country cottage in some quaint, "unspoiled" part of the world, no doubt there is no small measure of sympathy for these views.  Heck, I wouldn't mind owning a country cottage myself!  Where I can listen to all my Madonna albums, naturally. ;)

In a 2012 interview Beaton noted that she had worked as a crime reporter in Glasglow and had had enough of that life, thank you, complaining: "All the filth and the dirt and the lice and the degradation--they were the worst slums in Europe."  Beaton expounded:

Murder in real life is often brutal and short and nasty and I suppose I like the sort of middle class mystery which a lot of writers despise.  Nowadays it's got to be set in the tower block [housing project] and the heroine in the first chapter is a lesbian and her mother's in the tower block with Alzheimer's...People are steering for political correctness.


I read a lot of between-the-wars detective stories--Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Blake, Francis Iles. You write what you like to read and just hope the public likes you.  So I like the traditional detectives--Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie, Simon Brett.  I see myself as an entertainer--just trying to give someone a good time on a bad day.

MC Beaton (Marion Chesney)
Beaton's desire to entertain is a laudable motivation, even if she does give me pause when she seems to suggest that it's "political correctness" to have a "lesbian heroine" in a mystery novel.  I would love to know what further observations from Beaton were cloaked by that strategically placed ellipses!

In contrast with a number of other cozies, in Beaton's novels I haven't yet encountered any lesbian characters (or gay men either), though in Death of a Travelling Man there are references to transvestites and in Death of a Bore we learn that one of Hamish's former girlfriends, the psychic journalist Elspeth Grant, is dismissed as a lesbian by male coworkers she won't date.

Clearly Elspeth is still pining for Hamish, evidently the most elusive highly eligible male this side of Li'l Abner.

I do find myself wishing that there were more meat on the mystery plots in Beaton's books.  In Travelling Man there really is only one possible culprit for the crime, since we know that none of the villagers can be guilty.  It's all just a matter of breaking this person's alibi, which Hamish does, not very ingeniously.

But I think with Beaton the murder is only the formal means for introducing readers once again to another installment amusingly detailing Hamish's romantic and occupational travails in Lochdubh. Where in Agatha Christie the plot's still the thing (though there are many enjoyable garnishes as well), with Beaton it feels that the mystery is more incidental to updates on what is going on lately with her charming Scottish cop.

Beaton does seem to depart from modern cozy formula in some ways.  Her protagonist is male, and so many cozy mystery writers seem to have female protagonists today. Romance definitely plays a role in her books, but Hamish has been eluding matrimony for three decades now and it seems to me that ultimately he prefers the company of his four-legged friends. Will Beaton ever have Hamish tie the knot with a woman?  It seems awfully late in the series for that, though even PD James finally felled her morose and lovelorn poet policeman, Adam Dalgliesh, with one of Cupid's arrows.

What would Lochdubh make of her?
What was best about Travelling Man was not Hamish's love life, but that of his constable, Willie Lamont, who shares the police cottage at Lochdubh with him in this novel.  Willie loves nothing in life more than cleaning, which drives Hamish mad.  Okay, this is cribbed from "The Odd Couple," but I found it humorously done.

Willie's love of cleaning becomes his entree to the lush amours of a beautiful new employee at Lochdubh's new Italian restaurant.  The "vision" has, Beaton informs us, "an old-fashioned figure, that is, she had a voluptuous bust, a tiny waist and a saucy plump backside."  Well, if you wait long enough, things always come back in fashion again!

Death of a Bore, published a dozen years after Travelling Man, has Lochdubh threatened by another outsider, an obnoxious would-be highbrow author named John Heppel (the titular bore), who has come to the village, somewhat improbably it seemed to me, to conduct a writing class.

In the class Heppel belittles all the literary efforts of the villagers, who apparently all had secret yens to be authors and have under his prodding all bought computers; and when Heppel inevitably is found in his cottage murdered, his mouth having been filled with ink, everyone except Hamish suspects the villagers. Here there's more suspense than in Travelling Man because there is more than one plausible suspect in the murder, but the mystery plot itself still isn't any great shakes, really.

However, there are some amusing bits, especially Hamish's relationship with Heather Meikle, a woman inspector put in charge of the case.  Beaton also satirizes pretentious male "highbrow" novelists, a common object of mystery writer scorn. (Ruth Rendell has a wonderfully egregious specimen in her book Kissing the Gunner's Daughter.)  And you can rest certain that Hamish once again will rescue Lochdubh from the menace of the outside world, at least until the next novel, when he has to do it all over again!


  1. A very interesting piece. I quite like the occasional cozy/comfy (I once had a secretary who, memorably, spelled the latter word "cumphe", a spelling that I've ever since secretly preferred), but I have real difficulties with Beaton's work. To be fair, I've tried only a single Raisin and a couple of Macbeths (one of which was in rather curious English and may have been by a different author . . .), but, based on this limited exposure, I couldn't get on with either series.

    I think my problem is less with the comfiness, more with the humor. The kind of humor that inspires me in comfies is subversive, either where mainstream comfies introduce satirical elements (e.g., Ngaio Marsh and, though in general I'm no fan of hers, sometimes Agatha Christie) or put a genuinely functional comfy into a satirical framework (e.g., Colin Watson). In the Beaton novels that I've read -- and, to restress, this is a very small sample -- the humor has been every bit as cumphe and self-satisfied as the book as a whole.

    Obviously Beaton's books appeal to vast numbers of readers, and all strength to her that this should be so; I'm just rather self-indulgently explaining (hey! it's the intertubes!) why this particular reader doesn't get on with them.

    1. Yes, from what I've read there does seem a kind of complacency about the books that's reflected in Beaton's comments about "political correctness." To generalize, whatever is traditional seems to be okay, while what is "new" seems to be bad. this actually makes the books interesting to me even if at times I'm not agreeing with the author.

      Even on gender relations her women always seem to be chasing after Hamish. They don't really seem happy in their careers. Of course I have a ways to go with the series, so I may be missing something here.
      Her attitude to cities seems to be more disgust than sympathy. But this is reflective of the conservative, pastoral tradition in British mystery writing. If you are interested in studying this aspect of British mystery writing, Beaton is a good place to look. And most of us as we hit middle age probably get bitten by the nostalgia bug in one way or another.

      for me there's something oddly addictive about Beaton, even as I wish she would take more time with her writing, dig deeper with her characters and make the mysteries a bit more like those authors she admires so much (i.e., make them more complex). I suppose for me she has succeeded in creating a "place" that I find interesting.

  2. LGBT characters who are fairly sympathetically portrayed do begin to pop up in the 00s-10a era Beaton books. She's very curmudgeonly and, honestly, I find I enjoy her books more if I don't seek out her interviews and things because she doesn't always come across as particularly likable, but I don't think she's a bigot. Though like you, John, I bristle at her ideas of what constitutes "political correctness".

    Her books have a lot of charm and verve. I don't really read them for intricate mystery plotting - it's more to relax with something that really demands nothing of the reader.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean, Kacper, I find them relaxing too and I do find them addictive, like salted peanuts. Though when I eat too many salted peanuts, I'm like, ugh, why did you just do that! ;)

      In fact I'm planning another Beaton piece soon. For some reason I've never liked the Agatha Raisin series as much, I don't know why.

      I find Beaton's conservatism interesting. It seems to me more mystery writers today write from a more liberal standpoint, even in the cozy field. I'll be interested to see how Beaton "updates" in some of her more recent books.

  3. You'd think a happy medium would be possible. Something halfway between the gutter and The Charmed Pie Shoppe.

    1. Well, Beaton is not so twee, one thing I like about her!

    2. Well, Beaton is not so twee, one thing I like about her!

      You make her work sound quite tempting, or at least the Hamish Macbeth books (I'm not so fond of spinster detectives). Your reservations about her plotting are a bit of a worry though.

  4. I'm not a Beaton fan, and you and your other commentators explain better than I the various reasons, but I did really enjoy your piece, and inspired use of 'readers who bought this...' and of that last photo!

    1. Hee, hee, thanks, that's quite a pic! What's out always comes back--and in a big way, in this case!