DEATH OF A CHIMNEY SWEEP takes readers to the remote Scottish Highlands, where Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth has spent many a year solving crime in his inimitable fashion, while also finding time to mooch food from various people, poach fish from streams, and assiduously dodge various lovelorn women. This is M.C. Beaton's 27th novel in the successful and critically acclaimed cozy mystery series featuring the untraditional and always amusing Macbeth.
Hamish is stationed in his beloved little village of Lochdubh where he lives with his dog Lugs and wild cat Sonsie, both dearer to him than any of the women who appear occasionally to pursue him romantically. Hamish's beat extends to several small hamlets scattered through the Highlands. Drim is one of the more remote and dreary villages in Hamish's charge --- luckily nothing much happens there, allowing Hamish to visit it only rarely. However, when an English transplant to the Highlands, Captain Henry Davenport, is reported missing by his wife, Hamish steps in to investigate.
All the initial evidence points to the Captain having being killed by the local chimney sweep, Pete Ray, who was last seen cleaning the chimney of the manse that Davenport and his wife had bought after moving North. Pete is missing, as are some expensive candlesticks, and the unfortunate Captain's body is found stuffed in the chimney.
Hamish's sixth sense tells him that Pete is no cold-blooded killer. The simple-minded and perpetually soot-covered sweep had always lived in a small hut with precious few belongings. While other Scottish villages had moved on to having their chimneys vacuum cleaned, the villagers of Drim swore by the services of Pete, who even made a little extra money by kissing brides at weddings, to bring them luck according to local lore. Hamish's boss and thorn-in-his-side, Inspector Blair, is determined to declare Pete a robbery and murder suspect, much to Hamish's dismay. However, when Pete's body shows up lifeless in the moors with spurious evidence planted on him, Hamish knows he is on the trail of a devious murderer who will stop at nothing to get his way.
As the Sergeant starts to unravel the main characters' histories, he learns that nothing is as it seems on the surface. Far from having been the upstanding army man and lord of the manse that he liked to play, pompous Captain Davenport turns out to have been the perpetuator of many a get-rich-quick scheme that has earned him the hatred of former friends and colleagues. His flight north to the Scottish Highlands appears to have been inspired by the need to get away from the many people he defrauded. He also had been a nasty bully of a man, and his timid and browbeaten wife Milly is perhaps not too unhappy about his premature demise, especially as she soon begins to date a local newsman.
Hamish's pursuit of the truth behind the murders is stymied by the interference of Blair and his boss, Chief Inspector Daviot, and by Hamish's newly --- and reluctantly --- acquired constable, Torlich McBain. Hamish knows that Constable McBain, described by those who know him as "a wee sneak" and a religious fanatic, has been placed in Hamish's police station/home to spy on him. But wily Hamish is more than a match for his opponents, outwitting them with great ease at every turn. Soon enough Hamish has McBain filling his time with thankless tasks, while he continues putting media pressure on the top brass to solve the crime through carefully selected leaks to the press. As the clues start to emerge and Hamish closes in on the murderer, the body count rises precipitously, and the race is really on to solve the crimes before the killer strikes again.
M.C. Beaton is an established master of the cozy British mystery, and the charm and humor of her Hamish Macbeth stories are equal to any in the genre. Her descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, while picturesque, manage to convey a sense of respect for the remote and formidable landscape. Hamish is droll and quirky, and the cast of village regulars is always entertaining. DEATH OF A CHIMNEY SWEEP is sure to please returning fans of the series, while providing newcomers with an excellent introduction to a hilarious and offbeat detective.
Reviewed by Usha Rao on April 25, 2011