Monday, December 13, 2010

Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton

Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton, 1985

M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series of cozy murder mysteries is highly popular in the United Kingdom. I had read that the series was good and I enjoy a good old-fashioned mystery as much as anyone, so I dipped into the first volume, 1985's Death of a Gossip, with interest.

After reading the book, I can only assume that the series gets far better in future installments. I can't see for the life of me how Beaton is so popular, at least based on the quality of Gossip.

The plot: A small group of strangers meet in the idyllic Scottish town of Lochdubh to attend a local fly-fishing school. One of the pupils is a nasty woman who seems to have dirt on everyone. Within a few days, she is found strangled to death, and all of the students have a motive. It's up to the laconic local constable, Hamish Macbeth, to solve the crime.

The story is pure Agatha Christie cliche, but in skilled hands it might have been fun. Unfortunately, the novel could have been written by a precocious twelve-year old, at least judging by the quality of the prose.

Beaton's writing style is incredibly awkward; it absolutely screams amateur. Her dialogue is, to put it politely, on the nose and probably even more awkward than the prose segments. The characters speak in a stilted, exaggerated way, as though Beaton is trying to make their one-dimensional personalities clear with every word. They also have an annoying tendency to say exactly what's on their mind, or to relate important information to the reader, which could have been much more naturally integrated into narration.

And the characters. She puts together a cast so uniformly aggravating that it's practically an achievement. Alice Wilson, who has roughly a third of the book narrated from her perspective, is one of the most exquisitely annoying fictional characters I've ever run across. She's whiny, egotistical, amoral and just plain dumb, but it seems like the author is trying to make her sympathetic. It doesn't work. Alice doesn't come off as a helpless victim, she comes off as a self-absorbed nitwit who falls for an awful guy despite the anvil-sized hints that he's really a jerk.

Beaton isn't any kind of master mystery plotter either. There are few clues in the novel and no complicated personalities; Beaton displays over and over again that she has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. She makes it excruciatingly obvious during the novel's opening pages that everyone in the fishing school would like Lady Jane dead:

"I'll kill her," muttered John. "She's ruining the holiday for everyone." --- (page 14)

If she tries to spoil things for me, I'll kill her, thought Alice passionately. --- (page 23)

"I'll murder her. I'll kill that horrible woman. Kill! Kill! Kill!" --- (page 25)

The child's hard, assessing gaze was fixed on her face. "No," he said at last. "I hate that ugly fat woman. She's cruel and mean and evil. Why doesn't she die? Lots of people die in the Highlands. They get lost and starve and die of exposure. They fall off cliffs. Why can't something happen to her?"--- (page 32)

Accidents happened. Anything could happen. Alice pictured Lady Jane's heavy body plummeting down into a salmon pool, her fat face lifeless, turned upwards in the brown, peaty water. --- (pages 41-42)

Gee, do you think Lady Jane might end up dead? Maybe everybody has a motive. It'll probably be a fellow pupil who does her in. Gosh, that foreshadowing sure is subtle and understated.

Admittedly, the novel picks up speed once the actual murder occurs and has a passable, albeit dull, ending. The solution to the mystery is very mildly surprising, but impossible for a reader to actually guess, since there are really no hints to form theories with.

Beaton goes to a great deal of trouble to make Hamish Macbeth a likable, endearing main character, and he is at least somewhat more interesting than the cast of suspects. I don't much care for the ham handed ways that Beaton used to make him seem the spunkiest, most intelligent character in the book, but he wasn't a terrible detective to headline a cozy mystery. It's too bad the mystery was so inadequate.

I could also mention some of the awkwardly dated elements (the story is supposedly set in the 1980s, but some of the social mores and cultural references feel more like the 40s) and Beaton's uninspiring attempts at screwball comic relief, but I can leave well enough alone. Death of a Gossip is ultimately a dumb, light mystery novel with grade-school-reader prose and pancake-flat characters. It was mildly entertaining in its way, but some of the fun was in ridiculing the poor writing and obvious literary contrivances.

Wikipedia informs me that the Hamish MacBeth series now numbers a whopping twenty-six volumes, with a twenty-seventh coming in the February of 2011. I can only assume that the series got much better, and fast.

NEXT UP: The Eyes of the World by Robert Jordan, the first novel in the ginormous Wheel of Time series

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