I recently read the first Hamish MacBeth murder mystery, Death of a Gossip. It has a certain charm to it, but I must say that it was not in the least surprising that the author got her start in romance novels. I looked at the blurb on Amazon for her first novel, My Dear Duchess, written under the name Ann Fairfax. It ran:
Sloe-eyed, winsome Frederica Sayers, fresh from the schoolroom, married the Duke of Westerland–and set the Ten-thousand a-twitter! All because her social climbing stepsister, Clarissa, missed her chance to snare him, never guessing he would soon claim a coronet. Now the beautiful Clarissa again casts her shimmering nets for his lordship. And jet-haired little Frederica, wed in haste, must win her young Lord’s love…before he succumbs to Clarissa’s golden charms.
(I had to look up “sloe”. “Sloe” is another name for blackthorn, which has deep blue berries. “Sloe-eyed”, I take it, means having deep blue eyes.)
Note: spoilers follow.
While Death of a Gossip is, technically, a murder mystery, it’s really more of a romance novel in which a murder eventually happens and then a murder investigation forms the backdrop for the romance novel plot in the foreground. Except that every romance in the novel ends in disappointment. I haven’t read enough romance novels to know whether that’s common—I’ve only read one—but it’s very disappointing in a murder mystery. Romance, in a murder mystery, is best when it is a counterpoint to the murder. When the romance makes the murder look cheery by comparison, it’s just kind of a downer.
The novel, as a mystery, certainly doesn’t operate on play-fair rules. The investigation happens primarily off-screen, mostly through Hamish making telephone calls. This is a weird thing about the book being set in the early 1980s, by the way—telephone calls are common, but expensive. You will find telephone calls being expensive in mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, but phone calls are (relatively) uncommon. Also, the 1930s does not feel modern. The setting in the 1980s feels modern, but it’s been a while since the price of phone calls mattered. This is not anything against the novel, it’s just a curious experience while reading the story.
Anyway, back to the play-fair aspect: there’s one clue we’re given, which is a torn photograph found near where the corpse was found that had a picture of a woman’s head with a tiara on it and the letters “BUY BRIT” (they ended at the tear).
For some reason Hamish gathers the suspects together, goes over everyone’s motives for committing the crime, then he reveals who did it. It turns out—Hamish learned this from a phone call—that the letters were not “BUY BRITISH” referring to a campaign in Brittain in the 1960s, but rather were “BUY BRITTELS BEER” which was a local beer made in a suburb of a city that one of the suspects came from. This beer only exists within the novel, of course, but that doesn’t matter because we only learn of the existence of “Brittels beer” during the reveal of who the murderer is.
The amount of luck involved in Hamish gathering his evidence was a bit extraordinary, but in a sense this barely matters because it was also so flimsy that Hamish just made a guess at who the murderer was, accused them, tossed in a fabricated witness, and got a confession.
As I noted in my post about play-fair rules, they don’t really work for their intended purpose of giving the reader an equal footing with the detective for solving the case, but adhering to them does a lot to make the story better because it forces the author to structure the story in a way that holds together relative to the mystery being investigated. Part of this is that, having time to think over the clues, there will be a greater urgency on the part of the author for them to make sense.
For example, in the reveal Lady Jane was murdered where she was because she had decided to torment one of the fishing students with proof of the fishing student’s past—the photograph with “BUY BRITTELS BEER”—in private. But this was at a location over a mile from the hotel, up steep terrain that had everyone exhausted when they went there as a group to fish and discovered the body. This is hardly the place one would go to have a private conversation. With all of the evidence explaining what had happened coming out in just a page or two with the suspects gathered, and Hamish managing to obtain a confession, there wasn’t time to think about that.
Then there are some basic problems with having the murderer be American. How is an American supposed to care what a British gossip columnist writes about an obscure American, in the 1980s? If the gossip columnist had gotten something really juicy about an extremely famous American, I can see this making its way over to America, mostly because someone in England would think to tell someone in America. There was no internet and no google. The London Evening Star (a newspaper which only exists within this book) was not likely to be an international newspaper; when I was a boy in the 1980s my father read a lot of newspapers and I don’t recall ever seeing a British newspaper available for sale in the US. So the odds of some secret about Americans no one in America has ever heard of passing over to the US to influence local elections in the NY metro area is… pretty much zero.
Indeed, it was so far fetched that even the author didn’t quite go there. There’s a line where Hamish says that this wasn’t really the motive, and the murderer admits it, saying, “She messed with me, that’s all. I don’t like no one messing with me.”
Somehow this led to strangling Lady Jane with a fly fishing leader—a strange thing to have on hand during a clandestine evening meeting. I suppose we are to assume the murderer had a fly fishing leader in a pocket even though this was after dinner and everyone had changed out of their fishing clothes. Granted, Lady Jane was found in the pool in her usual fishing clothes, and I suppose that would make some sense to change into in order to go walking into the woods, but why on earth did she go walking into the woods with a person to reveal their deep dark past? All she really needed was a table in the hotel restaurant where she wouldn’t be overheard if she didn’t speak loudly. Some explanation for this would have been nice. Especially since both the murderer and victim were unfamiliar with the area and had no way of knowing where the river pool was. Hiking a mile through unknown mountain wilderness just to tell someone you knew what they did for a living a decade ago is… weird.
A fly fishing leader is also a really weird thing to strangle a person with. It’s a very narrow cord. Very narrow. Looking it up, we’re talking about the thick end of the leader being less than 1/32 of an inch (that’s around .6mm, for people who like their measurements to be power-of-ten multiples of the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458th of a second). That’s a little thicker than dental floss, but not by a whole lot. This would cut into the hands of anyone trying to use it to strangle someone else. And I don’t just mean cause pain—unless a person had stout leather gloves on, this would cut the skin, leaving clear marks to be seen the next day.
There’s also the issue of the thin nylon cord being strong enough to do the strangling. Fly fishing leaders can hold a small animal like a trout or a salmon, but the forces involved in trying to strangle a struggling human being who’s well over 100 pounds would snap it. (The force of a struggling salmon snaps fishing lines unless the angler has skill in playing out the line when the fish is pulling, then retracting the line when the fish is tired and resting.)
And once all these problems are dealt with, how did the murder get behind Lady Jane? They’re alone in the wilderness so that Lady Jane could torment the murderer with the murderer’s past. It’s hard to picture Lady Jane turning her back and letting the murderer slip up behind her.
And then, Lady Jane somehow having been killed, the murderer wrapped chains around Lady Jane’s legs and tossed her into the river pool. The motive is straight forward enough but the means make no sense. Where on earth did the chains come from? Are we to suppose that the murderer also just happened to have them in another pocket? It’s not like there was some sort of house or building nearby from which they could have been scrounged. Again, this was a long and difficult hike away from the hotel.
Now, I’m not saying that had the author stuck to play-fair rules that she would have done all this better. I merely think it’s likely that, had she doled out the evidence to the reader at the same time as she gave it to the detective, she’d have thought about it a bit more. If nothing else, Hamish would probably have been forced to talk about it at least a little bit with someone, and one of the characters might have pointed out the problem, forcing the author to notice. (Characters have an annoying way of doing what they want to do regardless of what the author wants them to do.)
I could say more, but I suspect I’ve gone on long enough on that subject.
The character of Hamish MacBeth is also a bit weird. On the one hand, he’s a likable character. On the other hand, he’s a bit of a scoundrel. He routinely breaks the law by poaching. He mooches off of people for things like food and coffee when he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He trespasses into people’s homes and places international telephone calls at their expense, without their permission. He only wanted to investigate this murder because the Detective Inspector who took over the case was rude to him. (And that only happened because the Detective Inspector took offense at Hamish not reacting to a complement with even common politeness.)
Having said all this, it is often the case that first murder mysteries are nowhere near as good as later ones. It is quite common for an author to figure out, when the first book is done, what the best parts of the detective were and to do his best to forget about the rest. I will probably read the next one in the series, Death of a Cad, but I found Death of a Gossip to be a bit of a downer and I suspect that I will need some time to get over my trust issues with Marion Chesney (the real name of M.C. Beaton).