Marion Chesney's first novel was published around 33 years ago, and a further hundred or so novels have appeared since then. Just over half of these were written under the nom-de-plume 'M C Beaton', all but one featuring either the Cotswold investigations of the unlikely-named Agatha Raisin or the adventures of PC (now Sergeant) Hamish Macbeth in the small fictional town of Lochdubh, located somewhere in the north-western wilderness of the former County of Sutherland.
If you are new to the Hamish Macbeth books, you may be influenced by memories of the TV series broadcast in the mid 1990s, which did much to launch the career of actor Robert Carlyle. Although the 20 episodes were both successful and enjoyable, it's as well to put them out of your mind, as apart from the name of a handful of lead characters and the principal location (Lochdubh) there was little to connect the plotlines and character development of the TV series with any of the ten or eleven HM books published at the time it was filmed. The Lochdubh of the books is a small town, clearly somewhat bigger than the village of Plockton where the series was filmed, and Hamish himself is tall, thin and red-haired - a sort of emaciated Rob Roy McGregor - and cannot be readily reconciled with the dashing, dark-haired hero of the small screen.
'Death of a Kingfisher' is the 28th book in the series; the first appeared in 1985, so the average ia almost exactly one novel a year. This time, the recession is biting in rural Sutherland just as much as in the rest of Europe. Tourism is a very important part of the local economy, and the small nearby town of Braikie is determined to make the most of its limited assets. North West Sutherland is exposed to the fiercest Atlantic gales, but possesses a few sheltered glens where the Gulf Stream weaves its magic, creating almost sub-tropical enclaves in the midst of the surrounding desolation. Buchan's Wood, half-a-dozen miles from Braikie, is one such gem and, better still, it is in the care of the local Council. Quickly re-invented as 'The Fairy Glen', the sylvan delights of this oasis of exotic shrubs and burgeoning fuchsia is soon a popular and hightly profitable tour destination, not the least of its attractions being a family of Kingfishers nesting by a pool in the centre of the wood. But one morning the male Kingfisher is found dead, hanging by a thin cord from a willow tree. It isn't long before death casts its shadow over the human population....
The Hamish Macbeth series belongs firmly within the 'cosy puzzle' sub-genre of detective fiction. It has no connection with the gritty world of police procedurals populated by John Rebus or Charlie Resnick, still less with the bleak Aberdeen landscape of DS Logan McRae. Many - perhaps most - of the novels fill their dedicated niche extremely well. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. A constant problem when writing reviews for Amazon is the need to avoid disclosing more than the minimum of plot detail needed to give an overall flavour of the novel; the reviews are primarily intended to help those who are considering buying the book. That's a problem I face now; I don't want to spoil the enjoyment of those who will buy the book regardless of my comments -and Hamish has a huge following, almost all of whom are likely to do precisely that. I freely accept that in the world of the cosy puzzle, strict attention to realism should not be expected, and where the narrative embraces humour, as it does in this series, even credibility may become less important, but 'Death of a Kingfisher' is not so much a cosy puzzle as a caricature of a cosy puzzle. The plotting is at times so loose as to become virtually incoherent; improbability abounds and the narrative repeatedly strays into the realms of fantasy. In short, the novel is poorly written and shows no evidence of competent editing.
Despite all this, I like Hamish Macbeth very much. I can even swallow the fact that although the background of the novels keeps pace with contemporary society, Hamish remains in his early thirties despite having had a 27-year career in the police force. If you are new to the Hamish Macbeth series, DON'T start with this one - it may discourage you from reading any further. Start with one of the early novels; some of them are good enough to get you hooked for life! If, like me, you're already hooked, don't expect much from this outing. Sadly, it seems that the author is willing to sacrifice quality in order to maintain quantity. Perhaps Hamish's halcyon days have drawn to a close.