Friday, June 24, 2016

Plenty of Pleasing Punshons Are Pedaling Your Way!

a palpable sense of the sinister
This month I haven't been able to blog as much as I had hoped because of various writing jobs, including the latest batch of introductions for Dean Street Press' ongoing series of E. R. Punshon mystery reissues.

Coming next month are Punshon's Bobby Owen mysteries from the 1940s, an interesting period for the series, when the UK was bedeviled by war and postwar austerity. (And people think times are bad now!)

This was also a period when a major American publisher, Macmillan, picked up Punshon, producing much more attractive editions than what Punshon's longtime and steadfast English publisher, Gollancz, was putting out at the time.

Among book collectors Gollancz's so-called "Yellow Peril" dust jackets has an infamous reputation.  Noted publisher Victor Gollancz was not a believer in using attractive jacket art--or any art to speak of, really--to sell books.

Gollancz did believe in blurbs, however, and typically the Punshon novels published by the firm would bear Dorothy L. Sayers' famous "What is distinction?" blurb, drawn from a 1933 rave review of Punshon's first Bobby Owen novel, Information Received. Sometimes other blurbists of eminence were used by Gollancz, such as John Betjeman (see below), who later became Poet Laureate.

Nice Blurbs!

Macmillan, on the other hand, offered pleasing cover designs by prominent jacket artists of the time. Their books were also much better made.  On account of paper shortages, Gollancz editions at this time used tissue thin, acidic paper and microscopic print.

Reading Forties Gollancz books is not the aesthetic pleasure a devoted reader would like, their merit notwithstanding; but happily these new Punshon editions, which will be available both in paper and digital versions, will offer a great improvement on that score!

classy cover art

Additional discussion of these matters, and more, will be found in the introductions to the new Punshon reissues by Dean Street Press.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Forthcoming in 2016: Murder in the Closet

June was chosen as LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, a landmark event in LGBT history and sexual and gender liberation. (This month also just recently saw, as we know, a tragic event at an LGBT public space: the monstrous mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.)  Since the events at Stonewall took place, nearly fifty years ago, the study of LGBT history and literature most definitely has burgeoned. (Today, incidentally, many people, myself included, would add a "Q"--or yet more letters--to the end of the LGBT initialism.)

In the crime and mystery fiction field there have been studies like The Gay Detective Novel (2004), but such books have tended to focus on works published after Stonewall, the post-Stonewall period having seen a tremendous expansion in LGBTQ fiction.

LGBTQ themes in crime and mystery fiction published before Stonewall, during the era of what is commonly categorized pejoratively as "the closet," often are seen as having been far more obscurely or indirectly presented and, when presented at all, distinctly negative in connotation.

Covering a period that extends from the Victorian era to the 1960s, the 23 essays collected in Murder in the Closet, now available for pre-order at Amazon and due out in November, deal with crime and mystery fiction published before Stonewall, analyzing LGBTQ themes in books by a myriad of authors, familiar and unfamiliar, and, in a number of cases, looking at the lives and works of LGBTQ crime and mystery writers specifically.

My study of vintage crime and mystery fiction over the last fifteen years or more has convinced me that significant LGBTQ material in these works has been insufficiently acknowledged (when even acknowledged); and I think the essays collected in Murder in the Closet will give readers a new appreciation of the diversity of crime and mystery fiction from this period, contributing to an ongoing scholarly reassessment and making a fresh and exciting contribution to mystery genre studies.

The contributors to the book are, in order of appearance: Lucy SussexJF NorrisNoah StewartJohn CurranMichael Moon, Brittain BrightJC BernthalMoira Redmond, Curtis Evans (aka the Passing Tramp), Charles RzepkaRick CypertJames DoigDrewey Wayne Gunn, Tom NolanBruce ShawNick Jones and Josh Lanyon.  On this blog I plan to discuss the specific essays more over the course of the year, as I interview contributors to the book. Please stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Boost of the Blurb 2: The Case of the Trent's Last Case Reprint (1929)

Blogger Kate Jackson at Cross Examining Crime, recently asked for the origin of Agatha Christie's blurbed praise of E. C. Bentley's landmark detective novel, Trent's Last Case: "one of the three best detective stories ever written."

I can't say whether this is the actual origin, but in 1929 this praise from Christie appeared on the back panel of a dust jacket to a Knopf reprint edition of Trent's Last Case.  However, Christie's praise, in contrast with the cheese, did not stand alone.  Nine other British crime writers were blurbed on the back panel, as you can see below, under the heading "What your favorite authors say":  It gives you a good roll call a some of the notables of British detective fiction in the late 1920s, when the Detection Club was cohering.

see Facsimile Dust Jackets

Left Column, top to bottom

Edgar Wallace
Trent's Last Case is a masterpiece of detective fiction.

Freeman Wills Crofts
I have read the book three times with an increased interest each time: one of the best detective stories extant.  

J. J. Connington
Mr. Bentley's record is, as far as I know, without a parallel....a detective story which appeals to women as well as men.  It does not date, it might have been written yesterday.

J. S. Fletcher
The very best and cleverest detective story I have read.

Right column, top to bottom

Ronald Knox
I suppose somebody might write a story as good as Trent's Last Case, but I have been waiting nearly twenty years for it to happen.

R. Austin Freeman
The literary workmanship is of a quality that must satisfy the most fastidious reader.

Agatha Christie
One of the three best detective stories ever written.

Dorothy Sayers
It is the one detective story of the present century which I am certain will go down in posterity as a classic.  It is a masterpiece.

G. D. H. and M. I. Cole
The best detective story we have ever read.

Trust Edgar
Some of these blurbs are superbly characteristic of the blurbers.  Christie, Fletcher and Wallace--writers extremely proficient at getting right down to business--are short and simple in their praise.  Sayers has an air of, "I have pronounced," perhaps common to people who write criticism (ahem!).  Knox has a note of humor, while Crofts is precise (he's read the tome three times) and a tad stodgy (extant). Freeman is a tad stodgy as well.

Connington probably will be dinged for sexism, and, having written about him extensively in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery" I can't deny that he presents some issues in that regard, but in fact he was reflecting the wide perception at the time that true detective fiction (as opposed to shockers) appealed more to men than to women.

It was only until the rise in the 1930s of crime writers, often women, who put more emphasis on characterization and literary style (and dare I say love interest) that this perception (and arguably the reality) really changed. This development is something I discuss in Masters. (You'll notice only three of the ten blurbers are women.)

I originally came across this information when editing a Roger Ellis essay on J. S. Fletcher which was included in Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene.  Fletcher in the 1920s and early 1930s was one of the most people detective fiction authors in the world.  All of the blurbers, incidentally, became founding members of the Detection Club, formed the next year in 1930, except for Fletcher and Edgar Wallace.  Fletcher likely was considered too dodgy on the matter of "fair play" presentation of clues, while the Detection Club to some degree was created to distinguish true detective fiction from the "shockers" of Edgar Wallace and other crime writers of the palpitation school.

It was the blurb from Wallace, you'll notice, which appeared on the front of the dust jacket, indicating who really ruled the roost in those days.  But it appears that Trent's Last Case managed to unite all British mystery writers.  On this matter Crime Queens, Humdrums and Farceurs all concurred with the Titan of Thrills.

One question remains: Why did this list of blurbs appear on a book published by Knopf, an American publisher?  (Their stable of authors included J. S. Fletcher and Dashiell Hammett.)  Did the list appear first in Britain?  Were these testimonials solicited  and then edited? (Notice the ellipses in the Connington quotation.)  Or had they already appeared in other sources and been assiduously collected by some Knopf editor?  Mysteries remain for literary  investigators!

Also, what were the other two best detective stories, according to Christie?

Also see The Boost of the Blurb: Death of a Beauty Queen (1935), by E. R. Punshon

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Short Take on Coles Shorts, Plus a Bit on Henry Wade and The Spectrum of English Murder

Among the copious crime fiction penned by GDH and Margaret Cole (to whom I devote a chapter in The Spectrum of English Murder, currently only $7.50 on Amazon) one finds a long body of short fiction.  Their first short story collection, Superintendent Wilson's Holiday, is quite good, one of the better such collections from the Golden Age, though their later collections have more than a whiff about them of the curate's egg: good in spots, with some hastily written clunkers.

A number of their stories were reprinted in the 1940s, after the Coles had stopped writing detective fiction, by Polybooks, in colorful though ephemeral editions of 64 pages.  Some of these books, or more properly booklets, are illustrated below.

Death of a Bride is a novella, published by Vallancey (an imprint of Polybooks, or vice versa), of the same 64 page length.  It is one of their best works.  "A Lesson in Crime," in which the Coles envision a mad mystery fan's murder of an Edgar Wallace stand-in, is a stand-out.

"Birthday Gifts" is very good.  (I think the woman on the cover with the candle looks rather like Margaret Cole herself.) While "Strychnine Tonic" is not so good, one has to love the cover: it seems the essence of cozy malice domestic.

Although recent  efforts to reprint the Coles have stalled, it would be nice if some of these short stories, at least, could be reprinted, perhaps in the British Library anthology series which Martin Edwards edits.

By the way, Spectrum of English Murder also has a chapter on Henry Wade, whose fine body of detective fiction is being reprinted by Orion, though their Murder Room imprint is being shuttered.

Other Coles books reviewed at the Passing Tramp:

The Man from the River (1928)
Death of a Star (1932)
Toper's End (1942)

And Henry Wade:

Henry Wade, The Dying Alderman and the Great War
Than Hanging Captain (1932)

Anita Boutell Is Back in Print Again: Death Brings a Storke (1938) and Cradled in Fear (1942)

Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s the American expatriate writer Anita Boutell was hailed as one of the most promising newcomers in English manners mystery.  A few years ago at this blog I reviewed the author's crime novel Tell  Death to Wait (1939) at this blog, while several other mystery fiction bloggers have reviewed her crime novel Death Has a Past (1939).  See, for example, Moira Redmond's review here, which links another by Martin Edwards.  There is also this review at the Bitter Tea and Mystery blog.

Now Coachwhip has reissued, as a twofer volume, her first mystery, Death Brings a Storke (1938), and her last, Cradled in Fear (1942).  For this volume I have written a 4600 word introduction, "Dance of Death: The Crime Fiction of Anita Boutell."

Boutell led a most eventful life during the Jazz Age, witnessing the birth and demise of three marriages between between 1917 and 1931.  Her husbands were all men of literary accomplishment, but her marriages to two of them were filled with strife, catapulting her into divorce courts and newspaper headlines.  Anita Boutell had more in common with Agatha Christie than a fondness for writing mysteries.

Born Anita Day in Newark, New Jersey in 1895, the author was the daughter of businessman Waters Burrows Day and his wife Anne May Burr.  The Day family owned a successful confectionery and catering company with ice cream "gardens" in Ocean Grove, Asbury Park, Morristown and Newark. (One of these gardens, or ice cream parlors, is still in operation today, though no longer under family ownership.) Waters B. Day ran the family's Newark store and when Anita was a teenager he became President of the Newark Trust Company, one of the city's most important financial institutions.

Greenwich Village Players
program for the play
Pan and the Young Shepherd
the cast of characters includes
"Miss Anita Day" as Dryas,
one of the Daughters of the Earth
Anita herself, who through her paternal grandmother was related to the author Stephen Crane, possessed an artistic temperament.  Upon attaining adulthood the beautiful, blue-eyed young woman started an aesthetic dancing studio in Philadelphia. Not long afterward, however, she moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where she performed on stage with a theatrical troupe, the Greenwich Village Players, at the Greenwich Village Theatre.

In 1917, when she was 21, Anita wed a young playwright, Patrick Kearney; the couple had a daughter, Monica, two years later. Kearney, who also wrote pieces for H. L. Mencken's The Smart Set, scored his first stage success in 1925 with the play A Man's Man, which he followed the next year with a hugely successful stage adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy.  Two years later he enjoyed another success with a stage adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry.

Unfortunately, Kearney's marriage with Anita deteriorated as he was rising to great career success. The playwright obtained a divorce from Anita in 1924, citing a dashing decorated Great War veteran and writer, George Alexander Porterfield, as co-respondent.  Two years later Anita, objecting to her ex's plan to take young Monica with him and his new wife on a long trip to Europe (her husband had been awarded custody of the child), fled, with Monica in tow, from her parent's New Jersey home to Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains.

A furious Kearney obtained a warrant for Anita's arrest on a charge of kidnapping, and the affair made national newspaper headlines in the the early summer of 1926, six months before Agatha Christie's notorious disappearance in England (e.g., "Broadway Playwright Hunting Hills for Child").

After several days Anita resurfaced and a court was able to settle matters between the feuding former husband and wife.  Kearney married two more times, the second marriage ending in divorce and the third in estrangement, and he lost his sizable fortune in the Depression.  He committed suicide in a rented room in New York in 1931, a sad end to a once glittering career.

Greenwich Village Theatre in 1929

Anita married her co-respondent in the divorce suit, George Alexander Porterfield, and the new couple moved to England; but this marriage quickly foundered, Porterfield, according to newspapers, being a "Continental playboy" who soon deserted Anita to "play about" on the French Rivera.

(Continuing Anita's marital links to literary notables from the Twenties, Porterfield's mother owned a boarding house in St. Paul, Minnesota which was often visited one year by a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, then writing This Side of Paradise and a friend of another writer staying at the boarding house; while Porterfield's father's second wife was a relation of the writer Octavus Roy Cohen, recently profiled by John Norris over at his Pretty Sinister blog.)

Anita Boutell in her early forties, at the
beginning of her brief literary career
By 1927 Anita, now 32, was keeping company with a handsome recent Harvard graduate, Henry Sherman Boutell, nine years her junior.  Boutell, a grandson of a former US congressman and diplomat and descendant of Founding Father Roger Sherman, was a young man of exceptional scholarly promise, in 1928 publishing First Editions and How to Tell Them, an acknowledged classic among bibliophiles which would go through four editions.

Anita and Henry wed in 1930, shortly after Anita's divorce from Porterfield, who died in Paris the next year. (Like Patrick Kearney, he was 39 at the time of his death.)  Tragically for Anita, Henry passed away as well in 1931, at the age of 26. (One can but conclude that Anita had unusually ill fortune with husbands.)

During their brief marriage Anita and Henry Boutell had settled in London with Monica (retrieved from Patrick Kearney); and Anita remained in England until the outbreak of the Second World War, when she returned to the US, settling in Santa Barbara, California, where Henry's parents owned the Tecolote Bookshop, still in existence today. (Anita remained close to Henry's parents, dedicating one of her novels to them.)

Anita's first three crime novels thus were written in England.  While her first mystery, Death Brings a Storke, is a charming English village tale complete with amateur sleuth in the classic style, her next three books broke away from the traditional mold, being more in the nature of psychological suspense novels (though Tell Death to Wait does present a murder puzzle).

The last of Anita Boutell's crime novels, Cradled in Fear, which the author wrote in Santa Barbara, shares affinity with Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and Dorothy Macardle's The Uninvited (British title, Uneasy Freehold), all suspense genre novels that achieved higher literary recognition.

After publication of this last novel, Anita Boutell wrote no more fiction that we know of for the rest of her life, even though she lived for another three decades; and her name was forgotten. However, for several years she was considered one of the up-and-comers of more literary mystery and it is exciting, I think, to see a couple of her books now back in print.  Fans of both traditional detective fiction and psychological suspense should check them out.

Also, don't forget about Coachwhip's reissue of Katherine Woods' Murder in a Walled Town, a fine mystery I discussed here, which is now available as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Down These Mean Lanes a Librarian Must Go: The Widening Stain (1942), by W. Bolingbroke Johnson

As my previous post indicated, Cornell University romance literature professor Morris Bishop (1893-1973) was not a stereotypical "stern academic" but possessed a wry sense of humor, a quality one finds in such lighter works of his as A Gallery of Eccentrics Or, A Set of Twelve Originals & Extravagants from Elagabalus, the Waggish Emperor to Mr. Professor Porson, the Tippling Philologer Designed to Serve, by Example, For the Correction of Manners & For the Edification of the Ingenious (1928) to his collections of comic poetry, such as Spilt Milk, published in 1942, the same year the author published his sole detective novel, The Widening Stain, under the pseudonym W. Bolingbroke Johnson.

Bishop was a particular connoisseur of the limerick, which is quite evident in The Widening Stain, where one of the professor characters composes limericks throughout the novel.  Bishop included the following limerick in an inscribed copy of The Widening Stain, held at Cornell University Library, suggesting Fame found him out and that he rather tired of the association:

A cabin in northern Wisconsin
Is what I would be for the nonce in,
To be rid of the pain
Of The Widening Stain
And W. Bolingbroke Johnson

To be sure, the author bio for "W. Bolingbroke Johnson" laid quite the false trail for potential admirers, declaring that Johnson was a native of Rabbit Hash Landing, Kentucky, had been employed as Librarian at Okmulgee Agricultural and Mechanical Institute and the American Dairy Goat Association and had published one previous novel, The Jelly-Like Mass.

1976 facsimile reprint by Cornell University Press

However Bishop came to feel about the novel, one of the qualities which makes The Widening Stain such an enjoyable novel is the humor.  While not a "screwball" American mystery in the sense of contemporary works by mystery writers Phoebe Atwood Taylor or Craig Rice, Stain has plenteous amusing satire directed at academic life, along with sharp writing and characterization and, last but not least, a most engaging and intriguing mystery plot.

Morris Bishop
painting by Alison Mason Kingsbury
see Cornell University Digital Library Collections
A particularly notable aspect of Stain is its amateur sleuth: Miss Gilda Gorham, Chief Cataloguer of the University Library.  Although on the very first page she briefly ruminates about spinsterhood ("She was rather on the thin-spinsterish side.  That is, if she was exactly a spinster.  When does one become a spinster, exactly?  Thirty-two?  Thirty-three?  Alarming thought!"), Gilda is an impressive picture of a professional woman in mid-century America, not only smoothly confident and capable in her salaried job but a fine moonlighting sleuth as well.

In type and function Gilda is far from American mystery fiction's dithering, romantically pining ingenue heroines familiar from the period in the works of Mignon Eberhart as well as the astringent, desexualized spinsters we find in crime novels by Mary Roberts Rinehart and her numerous imitators.

"So he says."
Within Stain Bishop provides quite a bit of amusing and adult commentary on the nature of gender relationships as perceived at the time. One has to regret that Gilda Gorham only appeared only in a single novel, as one is definitely left at book's end wanting more.

Morris Bishop's wife was Alison Mason Kingsbury (1898-1988), a Wellesley graduate and distinguished artist.  Perhaps their close relationship enhanced his portrayal of the Gilda Gorham character. The husband and wife were professional collaborators as well, Kingsbury often illustrating Bishop's books, like Spilt Milk.

Stain was reprinted in 2007 by the excellent Rue Morgue Press, although oddly the plot description on the Amazon page declares that one of the male professors at the nameless university (presumably Cornell) is the novel's sleuth.  This, unfortunately, simply is not accurate.  (Indeed, this particular professor is one of Gilda's suspects in the two murders which take place in the novel.)  Stain should be reprinted and the correct sleuth attribution made.  It's now one of my favorite mid-century American mysteries and I plan on saying some more about it this week.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Naked, Save for a Jockstrap, Carrying a Bowl of Goldfish

To the Editor:

In her review of Elspeth Huxley's memoirs, "Love Among the Daughters," (Sept. 22), Anne Fremantle quotes the author as asserting that a Cornell student, during a hazing ritual, "plunged to his death in the ravine naked, save for a jockstrap, carrying a bowl of goldfish."  Nonsense, my dear lady!  Some Cornellian was pulling your pretty leg.

                                                                                                   --Morris Bishop, Ithaca, NY

What did the goldfish know?

As the man who wrote the book on Cornell, Morris Bishop (1893-1973) should have known whereof he spoke when he penned this wry 1968 letter to the New York Times.  A professor of Romance literature, Bishop had been teaching at Cornell for nearly four decades and was the author of a most impressive range of books, from scholarly biographies of Blaise Pascal and Samuel de Champlain (and a number of other distinguished individuals) to collections of his own poems and limericks. (My two clues to the identity of Morris Bishop in my last post, which blogger Kate Jackson seems immediately to have picked up on, were that he was a professor from Cornell and that he was a limerick writer.)

And, as W. Bolingbroke Johnson, Bishop also published a single mystery. The Widening Stain (1942).  Despite occasional assertions that detective fiction was despised by Highbrows during its Golden Age between the wars, in fact many intellectuals were as addicted to it as, well, less highly-browed folk.

Bishop proves himself such a natural novelist in The Widening Stain that it's a shame he apparently didn't write another novel, mystery or otherwise.  But in addition to being extremely well-written, Stain doesn't neglect the plotting aspect and should please more purist fans of the form as well.  More coming soon!

A Certain Keen Prof at Cornell

From a Twenties American newspaper:

The startling fact has recently been disclosed in a survey of the bookstores of Ann Arbor that while students at Michigan read poetry and essays, and professors' wives read biography and novels, professors read detective fiction.


The professional proclivity for the epics of the plain-clothes man has become so universal and well established that it is recognized as an important item stocking all university town bookstores. Something in the way of mental relaxation is required by professional minds after a day of knotty problems, and the detective story finds a useful application in putting professors to sleep.

I'll be posting here some over the next week about one particular distinguished professor and the detective novel he published. (It should be familiar to some of you.)  Meanwhile, I leave you with this poetic masterpiece (I'm sure you'll agree), just to show you that I'm--to borrow from poet of rock Tom Petty--a complex kid who is not entirely about detective fiction.

A certain keen prof at Cornell
Musta thought mysteries were swell.
He only wrote one
But boy what a hon!
And soon of this all I shall tell.


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!