This is the first of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth detective series I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. I found the novel charming from start to finish, written with a wry twist that never fails to highlight the folly of expectations when dealing with human nature. Hamish, a Scottish detective with no aspirations save to remain in the small village of Lochdubh and avoid working in the big city, is a unique combination of acerbic wit and blunt honesty, an unmarried man of some charm who has captured the notice of many a lady with his bright eyes and shock of red hair.
This case brings Hamish in direct conflict with a self-proclaimed witch who has seduced the local husbands with promises of renewed virility. Warning the woman, Catriona Beldame, not to stir up animosity among the local families, Macbeth is greeted with a curse and sent on his way. When this witch is murdered in her bed, her hut set afire to destroy any evidence and relieve the villagers of their superstitious fears, Hamish works furiously to uncover her past and remove the onus of murder from any of his colorful friends and neighbors.
Beaton captures the flavor of the Scottish highlands perfectly: the insular, gossipy community; the rigid social structure that has prevailed for centuries; and the endemic superstitions that are so much a part of the village. The natural beauty of Lochdubh is striking when contrasted with some of the truly ugly activities since Catriona’s death. Not to mention the other deaths that follow soon after Catriona’s, all of which belie Hamish’s claims of the villagers’ innocence in the matter of the recent murders.
The characters are richly drawn, from Angus, the “seer” (with an excellent set of binoculars to boost his talents) to the two elderly sisters, one incessantly mimicking the other’s words, to the officious pastor’s wife who watches out for the morals of the community. According to many who know the most intimate village workings, “We don’t do sex in Lochdubh.”
Beaton explores an old theme - the battle of the sexes - as husbands bear the brunt of their wives’ rants, and Hamish can’t decide which woman suits him best: his first true love, who remains unmarried (and wealthy); his most recent failed romance; or the new forensics expert assigned to the case. As bodies pile up, Hamish is threatened by more than angry poachers, the ladies closing in on the wary bachelor.
Beaton has her nimble fingers on the pulse of what makes the world go round, even in tiny Lochdubh: “By the prickling in my thumb, something wicked this way comes.” Death of a Valentine is due out in February, and I am looking forward to another few hours in the world of Hamish Macbeth in the Scottish highlands.