Death of a kingfisher

Death of a kingfisher / M.C. Beaton

I don’t generally read a ton of mysteries anymore. It’s not that I have some problem with the genre, it’s that as I’ve grown up I’ve come to occupy a cultural headspace that makes the value structures seen in most mystery novels seem baffling. I don’t know if this is a generation thing or a philosophical thing or what, but I tend to find that mystery novels assume a set of perspectives on the part of the reader that I don’t share. 

I still do read them though. Partially because I think it’s important that I don’t get too wrapped up in reading lots of the same types of books, partially because I’m occasionally in the mood for something stupid and can’t find anything to read, and partially because I either hope it will make sense finally or that this one will be different. It’s similar to my experience with The adventures of Menahem-Mendl but more embarrassing as I’m supposed to have all the cultural context here. 

Sometimes these things are easier to pinpoint than others. With M.C. Beaton it’s fairly self-evident what the issue is.

So, Death of a kingfisher is one of the Hamish Macbeth novels, featuring the misadventures of a folksie constable in an exceedingly rural part of Scotland. They’re not quite cozy mysteries, being a bit longer than something like Miranda James, but in terms of structure and complexity they’re firmly in the cozy camp.

Plot summary

When a tourist in town for a fishing class does mysteriously, it’s up to Hamish Macbeth to bring the culprit to justice!

So how is it?

Perfectly serviceable. The plot follows more or less the same structure as your average mystery novel (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – I say this as a reader of both epic fantasy and wuxia novels). There’s nothing really here to distinguish it to those outside the genre aside from the setting.

Now to go on an extended tangent. I feel like the mystery novel is an inherently conservative genre. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at superheroes before, which is true to some extent, but there’s a very active group of authors who are trying to subvert that, which is aided to some extent by the fact that while superheroes may be agents of the status quo most of them are also vigilantes and not the exclusive tools of “the system”. When it comes to mystery novels it seems like there’s less of a counterculture, or if there is that it’s less visible. Gun machine and Crooked little vein are the only English-language example I can think of at the moment.

Here’s an example from Hamish Macbeth: at one point he complains about how rediculous it is that he’s expected to take it easy on people found with small amounts of marijuana whereas he’s supposed to actively prosecute people who drive drunk.

Yeah, complaining about not being allowed to let people get away with driving drunk is not a way to endear me to the series. It’s a really easy example of what I mean by the inherent conservatism of the genre though. Marijuana use is a priori worse than drinking and driving not because it has a more negative impact on the people doing it or others, but because it doesn’t conform to the expected societal norms. It would be one thing if there was any justification presented for why one was somehow worse than the other, but there isn’t. It’s seen as self-evident. The idea that failure to conform to “proper society” is somehow a bad thing independent of the (real or imagined) negative impact of a given activity permeates mystery novels. This was just one example that immediately jumped out at me.

But as I’ve said it’s a perfectly serviceable mystery series with a quaint rural setting. It’s pretty quick reading – I finished this one during the downtime of a reference desk shift. It’s just not quite my thing.

Recommendation

I do and have recommended this series before. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for older mystery novel readers that are looking for something new that isn’t too edgy. It works pretty well for that.

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