‘New’ British drawing room mystery recommended

by Dave Wood

I’m not a big fan of detective novels in general, but I’m a sucker for the works of  AgathaChristie and P.G. Wodehouse ever since I purchased a 25 cent paperback of the latter’s hilarious novel, “Psmith” when I was a kid.

Later, I was introduced to detectives like Dorothy Sayers” Lord Peter Wimsey, the elegant aristocrat detective who stars in “Murder Must Advertise” and other wonderful novels that I call British drawing room mysteries.

Now I’ve found a “new” writer in M.C. Beaton, who published  “Death of a Prankster” in 1992, which Grand Central has just republished. ($6.99).

Where have I been? In the frontispiece, Grand Central informs me that Beaton has written 27 novels in his Constable Hamish Macbeth series as well as another series called Agatha Raisin Books.

Here’s the plot. An aging and very wealthy Scot writes to all of his relatives and invites them up to Scotland, where his estate is located. He tells them that he hasn’t long to live and wants to meet with them all. All the relatives detest him, knowing that he’s probably not dying at all. He’s a notorious prankster and the relatives, in dread, all arrive at the estate, hoping not to offend him in which case he’ll leave them out of his will when he actually does die.

The assemblage is pretty typical of such stories. There’s a ne-er do well son, who has never amounted to much, his blowsy actress girlfriend. A physicist nephew and his new girlfriend. The physicist’s mother and her second husband, a real bounder. And two mannish sisters.

Well, sure enough, the manor house has been booby-trapped and all manner of pranks are sprung on the beleagured gathering. Finally one of the guests opens the door of a chiffonade and who should be hanging there but their host, with a dagger in his heart.

Enter the local constable, Hamish Macbeth and his ex girlfriend. They get to work to figure out who did the dastardly deed. It’s a real romp and I can’t for the life of me figure out why Masterpiece Theatre hasn’t done a TV adaptation.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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