Monday, July 16, 2012

Death of a Kingfisher

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Death of a Kingfisher (Grand Central, 2012).

Invariably, I end up looking over the reviews at when I copy the code for the link above. The notes for M.C. Beaton's latest novel about Police Constable Hamish Macbeth (the 28th!) surprised me more than I've ever been, doing this blog. More than a quarter of the reviews gave it only one or two stars, comparing it unfavorably, and vehemently, against the earlier novels in the series. Sure, everybody in the creative arts gets the "not as good as they used to be" all the time, but the volume of the shouting here was really something else.

This is interesting, because I was planning to write up a little something telling my readers about how very unusual this book that I discovered was, and the allegations from some members of Beaton's fan base that it's unforgivably gory and violent started my brain ticking. I finished it believing that it was weird enough to warrant looking at some of the other books in the series, but now I find so many people expressing that it's a somewhat atypical entry, and that the other books are much, much better. Hmmmm.

So Macbeth, a quick-witted and careful constable with a small village beat and no real desire for advancement or promotion or city life, is the star of this series of novels that are firmly in the "cozy" genre of detective fiction. He's investigating vandalism at a local tourist attraction, a glen that's on a plot of land being disputed between grouchy members of an unpleasant family. When a murder is reported, Macbeth, following procedure, notifies his superior officer in the nearby larger town, and police and press descend on the glen to find that it's actually a rare and beautiful bird that nests there, poisoned. The very angry detective inspector bawls out Macbeth in front of the cameras for wasting police time and resources, which turns into a PR nightmare as a nation of animal lovers protests his tactlessness. The bird can't even be laid to rest without a public relations catastrophe.

It's all very well and fairly amusing until a human being is killed. I'm rereading Chandler right now, and I can't help but think that his low opinion of British detective fiction would not have been swayed by the unbelievably contrived death of the unlovable, wheelchair-bound rich lady. There's convoluted criminal schemes, and then there's launching somebody via rocket. Look, I'm fine with this blog popping back and forth between detective fiction and comic books, but if I wanted to read Batman, then I would have. You know what works for killing people? Guns.

But this tomfoolery is not comfortable playing within the lines of "cozy" mystery. Among the unpleasant and unhappy family, we meet two sullen, disaffected, malicious teenagers. While the book plays along happily with its witty and goofball domestic squabbles and lighthearted tweaking of police procedure and its remarkably silly death scenes, the children become more and more important to the narrative, and we learn more about their sociopathic behavior. About three-quarters of the way to the end, these two have evolved past the pranking, wicked kids to whom we were introduced and seem like creatures from a much more violent and unhappily realistic world, with organized crime and white slavery and pitiless cruelty that provides none of the "cozy" world's escape from our lives.

There is also a very strange disconnect between their antics and the flow of the novel. For the most part, as novels of the genre go, this piece tells us a single story about a single incident, isolated over the course of a few weeks while the events play out. But as the duo become the central characters of the story, each new event is related as happening several months later. It's almost as though Beaton ran out of interest with the glen and couldn't find a way to wrap up things, so she began reporting what happened to these characters after the incident concluded, and could not stop talking about them. It's a trick that doesn't really satisfy me, but I mention it because it is so incredibly weird. I can't imagine why Beaton wanted to change the focus so firmly, and in such a disjointed way.

I'll give the author credit for doing something so very strange and unique, but it's evident that the approach didn't satisfy her long-time readers at all. I'll definitely sample Beaton again sometime. I was charmed enough by the village of Lochdubh that I planned to return anyway; I'm more intrigued now that I know that it's not always this bizarre.


Anonymous said...

I read the first 6 or 8 books, but didn't find them as interesting as the TV series with Robert Carlisle ... -=)-(eather =-

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

I have the first of her Agatha Raisin series waiting for me in the read pile. Got too darn many other books to read and reread right now though!