DEATH OF A VALENTINE features village constable Hamish Macbeth, who has recently been promoted to police sergeant. For Hamish, this is an unwelcome promotion, bringing with it the ever-present threat of being transferred from his beloved village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands to a larger, much less appealing city.
After all, Hamish leads a comfortable life in Lochdubh --- mooching food from friendly restaurant owners, poaching fish from the clear local streams, and living in happy domesticity in his small police station home with his dog Lugs and cat Sonsie. His social life revolves around his pets and the colorful locals, such as the “seer” Angus, Dr. Brodie and his absent-minded wife Angela, and irritating and gossipy sisters Nessie and Jessie.
Into Hamish’s determined bachelor life enters his new constable, wee Josie McSween, who soon becomes a favorite with all the villagers --- all of them, that is, except for Hamish himself. Hamish finds Josie to be pesky and entirely unsuited to police work, and wonders why she ever fancied herself a policewoman since she manages to bungle nearly every police task she undertakes.
What Hamish doesn’t know is that Josie has come to Lochdubh with the express purpose of winning his heart. To this end, she tries to tempt him with food and drink, frequently skulks around his home, and drops by uninvited in the hopes of furthering a romance. He even catches her rummaging around his police station --- actually, Josie had been planning the changes she would make to the station when she was finally ensconced there as Mrs. Macbeth, the first of these changes being to get rid of Hamish’s beloved dog and cat. Josie finds herself increasingly desperate to win over Hamish, especially once her jealousy is powerfully roused by the entrance of his erstwhile love interests --- famous TV reporter Elspeth Grant and lady of the manor, Priscilla Hallburton-Smythe --- into the picture.
Hamish and Josie are thrown together when the Lammas festival queen, a village beauty by the name of Annie Fleming, is brutally killed when a Valentine’s Day package addressed to her explodes in her hands. They soon learn that Annie wasn’t quite the young innocent girl her parents believed her to be; in fact, the list of men who might have had sufficient cause to murder her ranges from young drug-dealing thugs to middle-aged married men. Annie, it appears, led on and jilted nearly the entire male population of the village.
As Hamish tries to puzzle out the case (without much help from Josie, of course), Annie’s murder is followed by the homicides of several potential witnesses in rapid succession. Hamish finds himself under the gun to learn the identity of the killer or killers, all the while hindered by the active interference of busybody Inspector Blair and the well-meaning but ineffectual support offered by Chief Inspector Daviot. Can Hamish catch the villain before Josie manages to ensnare him in matrimony?
DEATH OF A VALENTINE continues in the charming and droll style established by M. C. Beaton’s previous books in the series. Given the grittier themes of the current story (which features, for instance, depraved religious leaders and criminally-minded policemen as well as an escalating body count), it falls as much into the category of a police procedural as that of a cozy mystery. The plot and cast of characters are also quite complex compared to earlier books in the series.
For both returning fans and newcomers (or “incomers” as Hamish might say), the 25th Hamish Macbeth mystery offers an interesting and solid read, and an amusing look at the shenanigans of a wily and ever-entertaining hero.
Reviewed by Usha Reynolds (Usha_Reynolds@hotmail.com) on December 29, 2010