By M. C. Beaton
Formats and Prices
- Mass Market $8.99 $12.99 CAD
- ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 1, 2006. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Death of a Bore: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
Minor writer John Heppel has a problem–he's a consummate bore. When he's found dead in his cottage, there are plenty of suspects. But surely boredom shouldn't be cause for murder, or so thinks Constable Hamish Macbeth.
No man, but a blockhead, ever wrote, except for money.
– Samuel Johnson
There used to be quite a lot going on in a highland village during the long, dark winter months. There was a ceilidh every week where the locals danced or performed, singing the old songs or reciting poetry. Often there was a sewing circle with its attendant gossip; the Mothers’ Union meetings; the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts classes; and the weekly film show in the village hall. But with the advent of television and videos, people often preferred to stay cosily indoors, being amused by often violent films with heroines with high cheekbones, collagen-enhanced lips, and heels so high it made ankles comfortably ending in slippered feet just ache to look at them.
Therefore when Hamish Macbeth, police constable of Lochdubh, heard that a newcomer, John Heppel, was planning to hold a series of writers’ classes in the village hall, he set out to dissuade him. As he said to his fisherman friend, Archie Maclean, ‘I don’t want to see the poor wee man humiliated when nobody turns up.’
Hamish had seen a poster in Patel’s general store: DO YOU WANT TO BE A FAMOUS WRITER? FAMOUS WRITER JOHN HEPPEL WILL HELP YOU BECOME ONE.
The first meeting was scheduled for the following week on a Wednesday evening at seven-thirty. Hamish knew that on that evening Petticoat Cops was showing at just that time, a cop series set in LA with three leggy blondes with large lips, high busts, and an amazing skill with firearms and kung fu. He did not know anyone in Lochdubh who would risk missing the latest episode, except perhaps himself.
So on one wet black evening with a gusty gale blowing in from the Atlantic and ragged clouds ripping across the sky, Hamish got into the police Land Rover and set out for John’s cottage, which was out on the moors above the village of Cnothan. Hamish was feeling lonely. His affair with the local reporter, Elspeth Grant, had come to an abrupt halt. She had been offered a job on a Glasgow newspaper and had asked him bluntly if he meant to marry her.
And Hamish had dithered, then he had said he’d think about it, and by the time he had got around to really considering the idea, Elspeth had accepted the job and left. He wondered gloomily whether he was cut out to live with anyone, for his first feeling on hearing the news that she had gone was one of relief.
He wondered at first why John had not decided to hold his classes in Cnothan but then reflected that Cnothan was a sour town and specialized in ostracizing newcomers.
Sergeant MacGregor, who had policed Cnothan for years, had retired, and the village and surrounding area had been added on to Hamish’s already extensive beat. Village police stations were being closed down all over the place, and Hamish had not felt strong enough to protest at the extra work in case he lost his beloved home in the police station in Lochdubh.
Hamish had never met John Heppel. Normally he would have made a courtesy call, but an irritating series of burglaries over in Braikie had to be solved, and somehow the man’s arrival in the Highlands had gone out of his mind. Much as he loved Sutherland and could not consider living anywhere else, Hamish knew that newcomers often relocated to the far north of Scotland through misguided romanticism. Writers or painters imagined that the solitude and wild scenery would inspire them, but usually it was the very long dark winters that finally defeated them.
He drove through Cnothan, bleak and rainswept under the orange glare of sodium lights, and up on to the moors. The heathery track leading to John’s cottage had a poker-work sign pointing the way. It said, ‘Writer’s Folly’.
Hamish drove along the track and parked outside the low whitewashed cottage that was John’s home.
Hamish chided himself for not phoning first. He rapped on the door and waited while the rising gale whipped at his oilskin coat.
A small man opened the door and stared up at the tall policeman. ‘I am Police Constable Hamish Macbeth from Lochdubh,’ said Hamish. ‘Might I be having a wee word with you?’
Hamish followed him into a living room lined with books. A computer stood on a table by the window. Peat smouldered on the open fire. Over the fireplace hung a large framed photograph of the author accepting a plaque.
‘You have interrupted my muse,’ said John, and gave a great hee-haw sort of laugh.
He was only a little over five feet tall, bespectacled, with thinning grey hair, the strands combed over a balding scalp. His eyes were large and brown above a squashy, open-pored nose and fleshy mouth. He wore a roll-necked brown sweater and brown cords.
‘Sit down,’ he said. ‘You’re making my neck ache.’
Hamish removed his cap and coiled his lanky length down into an armchair by the fire.
‘Is that your own colour?’ asked John, staring at Hamish’s flaming-red hair.
‘All my own. You don’t seem to be surprised at getting a visit from the police.’
‘I’m not married, my parents are dead and I have no close relatives. People are only frightened when they see a policeman at the door if they’re worried about a loved one or have something to hide. So why have you come?’
‘It’s about your writing class.’
‘I’ll be delighted to see you there. You can pay for the whole term or at each class.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of attending. I don’t think anyone will. They’ll all be at home watching the telly.’
John looked a trifle smug. ‘I have already had ten applications from the residents of Lochdubh.’
‘Who might they be?’
‘Ah.’ John wagged a finger. ‘I suggest you come along and see.’
‘I might do that. Have you had much published?’
‘I received the Tammerty Biscuit Award for Scottish literature.’ John pointed to the photograph. ‘That’s me getting the award for my book Tenement Days. Have you read it?’
‘Then let me give you a copy.’ John left the room. Hamish looked around. A small table over against the wall opposite from the computer held the remains of a meal. Apart from the books lining the low walls and the large photograph over the fireplace, there were no ornaments or family photographs.
John came back in and handed him a copy of Tenement Days. ‘I signed it,’ he said. Hamish flipped it open and looked at the inscription. It read, ‘To Hamish MacBeth. His first introduction to literature. John Heppel.’
‘I haff read other books,’ said Hamish crossly, the sudden sibilance of his highland accent showing he was annoyed. ‘And my name is spelled without a capital B. What else have you written?’
‘Oh, lots,’ said John. ‘I’ve just finished a film script for Strathbane Television.’
‘What’s it called?’
John looked suddenly uncomfortable. ‘Well, it’s a script for Down in the Glen.’
Hamish smiled. ‘That’s a soap.’
‘But I have raised the tone, don’t you see? To improve the public mind, even great authors such as myself must lower themselves to write for a popular series.’
‘Indeed? Good luck to you. I had better be going.’
‘Wait a bit. You asked about my work? I have been greatly influenced by the French authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and François Mauriac. Even when I was at school, I became aware that I had a great gift. I was brought up in the mean streets of Glasgow, a hard environment for a sensitive boy. But I observed. I am a camera. I sometimes feel I have been sent down from another planet to observe.’
‘Quite a lot of highland drunks feel the same way,’ said Hamish, made malicious by boredom. ‘You know, they all think they’re off another planet.’
But John’s eyes had taken on the self-obsessed glaze of the bore. ‘You are wondering why I never married?’
‘Last thing I was wondering,’ muttered Hamish.
‘There was one woman in my life, one great love. But she was married. We met in secret. Our passion soared like . . . like . . .’
‘The eagle,’ corrected John crossly. ‘She had raven hair and skin like milk.’
‘Aye, well,’ said Hamish, determinedly getting to his feet. ‘All verra interesting, but I’ve got to go.’
‘Oh, must you? Then I shall see you next Wednesday.’
Hamish jammed on his cap. ‘Don’t get up,’ he said. ‘I’ll see myself out.’
He noticed that a wax coat hanging by the door was wet.
He was just getting into the Land Rover when John ran out after him. ‘You’ve forgotten your book.’
‘Aye, thanks.’ Hamish took it from him and threw it on to the passenger seat and drove off at great speed.
He won’t last the winter, he told himself, unaware at that time that John Heppel was to leave the Highlands but not in a way that Hamish Macbeth expected.
As Hamish drove along the waterfront in Lochdubh, he saw that one wire mesh waste bin had not yet been stolen by the fishermen to be used as a lobster pot. He stopped the Land Rover with a jerk, picked up John’s book, opened the window, and hurled the book into the bin. The inscription had annoyed him.
He drove a little further and then noticed a small crowd outside Patel’s general store. Mrs Wellington, the minister’s wife, was one of the group, and she waved to him.
Hamish stopped again and rolled down the window. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘It’s dreadful,’ said Mrs Wellington. ‘Come and look.’
Hamish climbed down and walked over. The group parted to let him through. There on the whitewashed wall of the store by the door, someone had sprayed in red paint, ‘Paki Go Home’.
‘And he’s not even Pakistani!’ wailed Mrs Wellington. ‘He’s Indian.’
The door of the shop, which had been closed for the night, opened, and Mr Patel came out. ‘Hamish, what’s happened?’ he asked.
‘Some maniac’s been writing on your walls,’ said Hamish.
Mr Patel looked at the wall. ‘Who would have done this?’ he asked, looking round the little crowd.
‘Do you sell spray paint?’ asked Hamish.
‘Yes, but never to children. I mean, I only sell it to people who’re going to use it round the house.’
Hamish addressed the group. ‘I want all of you to ask round the village and find out if anyone saw anybody near the shop. You closed half-day today, Mr Patel. It gets dark after two in the afternoon. So it must have happened sometime between then and now. In the meantime let’s get some turpentine and wash the stuff off.’
‘What about fingerprints?’ asked Mrs Wellington.
‘No forensic team’s going to turn out for this, and the kit I’ve got wouldn’t be able to get one off that wall. Let’s get to it. And tell that new schoolteacher, Miss Garrety, that I’ll be along to speak to the pupils tomorrow first thing.’
‘You think it’s children?’ asked Angela Brodie, the doctor’s wife, who had joined the group.
‘I don’t know,’ said Hamish. ‘I chust cannae think of anyone who would do this. Mr Patel is one of us and has been for ages.’
The group was getting larger, and everyone was desperate to take a hand at cleaning the wall. Hamish pushed back his cap and scratched his fiery hair. ‘If it was “English Go Home”, I could understand it,’ he said to Angela. ‘There’s a lot of stupid English-bashing in Scotland these days.’
‘But not in Lochdubh,’ said Angela. ‘It must be someone from outside. Everyone in Lochdubh knows that Mr Patel originally came from India.’
The next day Hamish put his odd-looking dog, Lugs, on the leash and walked along to the village school. The school, like his police station, was under threat. The children were taught up to the age of eleven years, and then the older ones were bussed to the secondary school in Strathbane. There had been various moves to close down the school, but each time the well-organized villagers had mounted such a strong protest that they had succeeded in keeping it.
Miss Freda Garrety, the schoolteacher, was a tiny slip of a thing in her twenties. She barely came up to Hamish’s shoulder. She had straight black hair cut in a bob and a white triangular face with large black eyes. She was dressed in a black T-shirt and black trousers. Hamish thought she looked like a harlequin.
‘I’m here to speak to your pupils,’ said Hamish.
‘About the graffiti?’ She had a lowland accent. ‘Make it quick. Exams are coming up.’
Hamish walked into the classroom, where the children still sat behind old-fashioned desks: the oldest at the back and the youngest at the front.
He walked to the front of the room. ‘I’m here to talk to you about the racist graffiti on the wall of the general store. This is a disgrace and should not be allowed to happen in Lochdubh. Do any of you know anything about this?’
Solemn faces stared back at him, but nobody spoke. ‘Now, some of you may know something but don’t want to tell me in front of the others. If you do know anything at all, I want you to call at the police station with one of your parents.’
A small boy put his hand up.
‘My faither says there’s too many foreigners in this country. Maybe you should speak to him.’
‘You’re Dermott Taggart, am I right?’
‘Is your father at home?’
‘He’s down on a building site in Strathbane.’
‘Do you think he might have had something to do with this?’
Dermott looked suddenly frightened. ‘Don’t be telling him I said anything,’ he said, and burst into tears. Freda rushed forward to comfort him.
‘Anyone else?’ asked Hamish.
‘Well, listen carefully. Racism is a serious crime. The culprit will be punished, and mark my words, I’ll find out who did this.’
Hamish returned to the police station and went into his office, where he stared blankly at the computer. Who on earth would want to paint a racist slogan on Patel’s shop?
There was a cry from the kitchen door. ‘Hamish, the telly’s here. They’re outside Patel’s wi’ that writer cheil.’
Hamish rushed out. Archie Maclean stood there. ‘Ye wouldnae think they’d bother.’
Hamish walked with him round to Patel’s. John Heppel was standing outside the shop, facing a camera crew.
‘. . . and that is all I have to say,’ he was declaring pompously. ‘I, John Heppel, will do my utmost to help the police find the perpetrator of this wicked crime. Thank you.’
Hamish’s hazel eyes narrowed in suspicion. John Heppel was made up for the cameras, and yet he could not see a make-up girl anywhere around.
He pushed his way through the crowd that had gathered to where John was talking with the interviewer, a pretty girl called Jessma Gardener.
‘How did you find out about this?’ demanded Hamish of John.
‘Ah, Constable. I just happened to be passing and saw the television crew.’
Hamish leaned forward and drew a long finger down John’s cheek and then studied the brown make-up on his finger.
‘Do you usually wear make-up?’ he asked.
John flushed angrily. ‘I am so used to television appearances,’ he said, ‘that I carry a kit in the car. I owe it to my readers to look my best at all times.’
Hamish turned to Jessma. ‘How did you hear about this?’
‘Someone phoned the news desk late last night.’
‘Would you mind phoning up and asking the name of whoever it was phoned the story in?’
‘I’ve got to be going,’ said John, and he pushed his way past Hamish and through the crowd.
While Jessma took out her mobile and phoned, Hamish stood watching the retreat of John Heppel.
When she rang off, she said, ‘It was an anonymous caller. Then John phoned and said he would be at the shop. As he’s writing a script for one of our shows, we thought we may as well interview him. Me, I think it’s a waste of time. You should have heard the whole speech. You’d think the wee mannie ran the Highlands. It’ll probably end up in the bin.’
Hamish went back to the police station, collected his dog, and drove off in the Land Rover in the direction of Cnothan. He put the light on the roof and turned on the siren as Lugs, his dog, rolled his odd blue eyes at his master. Lugs hated that siren.
Hamish cut off several miles to Cnothan by bumping along a croft track and arrived at John Heppel’s house before the writer.
He got down from the car and waited.
He searched through the rubbish bin at the side of the house and was still searching when John drove up.
‘What are you doing?’ demanded the writer angrily.
Hamish straightened up. ‘I was looking for a can of spray paint.’
‘I’ll sue you for defamation of character.’
‘You do that and I’ll get a warrant to search your house and examine your clothes for paint. I think you sprayed that graffiti to get yourself a bit of publicity.’
‘How dare you!’
‘I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment without bothering about a silly man like you. Don’t ever do anything like that again.’
‘I’m telling you, I’ll sue you!’
‘Go ahead,’ said Hamish. ‘I’d enjoy seeing the sort of publicity that would get you. When I arrived at your place last night, your coat was still wet. You’d been out. Any more publicity stunts like that and I’ll have you.’
‘I hate that sort of person,’ said Hamish to his dog as he drove off. ‘Now, what do I do, Lugs? Do I tell the villagers? Och, it’s chust a storm in a teacup. He won’t try anything like that again. But I will have a word on the quiet with Mr Patel.’
Mr Patel’s eyebrows shot up into his hair when Hamish took him outside his shop and quietly explained his suspicions about the writer.
‘Are ye sure?’ asked Mr Patel. ‘I’ve signed up for one o’ his classes.’
‘You want to be a writer?’ asked Hamish, momentarily diverted. ‘What kind of book?’
‘I was thinking I might write my life story. You know, how I started off selling stuff out o’ a suitcase round the Hebrides until I had enough to start a shop.’ His brown eyes took on a dreamy, unfocussed look. ‘I’ll call it An Indian’s Life in the Far North of Scotland.’
‘Maybe you should try for something snappier.’
‘Cannae think of anything.’
‘There you are! That’s why I need to go to a writing class.’
‘Anyway,’ said Hamish, ‘I’ve no actual proof he did it, and in order to prove it, I’d need a warrant to search his house and I can’t see me getting it. So we’ll keep this between ourselves.’
‘So you’re not sure he did it?’
‘Pretty certain. I mean, he turned up with make-up on.’
‘Maybe he’s . . . well, you know . . . that way inclined.’
‘He’s inclined to getting his stupid face on television, that’s all.’
Hamish turned round. Callum McSween, the dustman, stood there. ‘I found a book inscribed to you in the bin. Here it is.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ mumbled Hamish. He wanted to say he had put it there deliberately but suddenly wanted to forget all about John Heppel.
He nodded goodbye to both of them. He drove to the police station, got down, and helped Lugs out because the dog’s legs were too short to enable him to jump down from the Land Rover. He looked at the book in his hand.
He glanced along the waterfront. It was now the dinner hour – Lochdubh residents still took dinner in the middle of the day – and the waterfront was deserted.
He hurled the book so hard that it flew straight across the waterfront and over the sea wall.
Hamish was just frying some chops when there was a knock at the kitchen door. The locals never came to the front door. He opened it. In the days when Hamish was a police sergeant, his caller, Clarry Graham, had worked for him – or, rather, had not worked, Clarry finding that his talents lay in being a chef.
To Hamish’s dismay, he was clutching That Book.
‘It’s quiet up at the Tommel Castle Hotel at the moment,’ said Clarry plaintively. ‘I was out fishing in the loch when this book fell out o’ the sky and right into my boat. It’s inscribed to you.’
‘Thanks,’ said Hamish.
‘Must’ve been kids,’ said Clarry.
‘You don’t want to be reading something like that anyway,’ said Clarry. ‘Full o’ nasty words. I’m telling you, there’s an eff in every line.’
‘That’s the fellow who’s going to be giving those writing classes.’
‘Oh, I’d signed up for those.’
‘You, Clarry? A book? I mean, what about?’
‘I’m going to call it From Police Station to Kitchen.’
‘Look, Clarry, it iss awfy hard to get a book published these days. Particularly a life story. You really have to be some kind o’ celebrity. Besides, this John Heppel seems to write the sort of stuff you wouldn’t want to read.’
‘He’s going to tell us about publishers and agents,’ said Clarry stubbornly. ‘I’d like to make a bit o’ money. Just look at what J.K. Rowling earns.’
‘Didn’t it dawn on you that J.K. Rowling can write? Clarry, only four and a half per cent of the authors in this world can afford to support themselves. I ’member reading that.’
Clarry’s round face took on a mulish look, and Hamish suppressed a sigh. Clarry obviously thought he was destined to be one of the four and a half per cent.
When Clarry had left, Hamish began to think uneasily about John’s writing classes. John, he was beginning to feel, was some sort of dangerous foreign body introduced into the highland system.
He decided to attend the first class. It would upset John to see him there, and Hamish looked forward to upsetting John. He flicked open John’s book and began to read. It was one of those pseudo-literary stream-of-consciousness books set in the slums of Glasgow. The ‘grittiness’ was supplied by four-letter words. The anti-hero was a druggie whose favourite occupation seemed to be slashing with a broken bottle anyone in a pub who looked at him the wrong way. The heroine put up with all this with loving kindness. Hamish flicked to the end of the book, where a reformed anti-hero was preaching to the youth of Glasgow. No one could accuse the book of being plot-driven. Hackneyed similes and metaphors clunked their way through the thick volume.
Maybe it was all right, he thought ruefully. Like all Highlanders, he was quick to take offence and loathed being patronized. The inscription still rankled, however.
There was another knock at the door, very faint. Hamish opened it and looked down at Dermott Taggart, the small boy who had thought his father might be responsible for the graffiti.
‘Come ben,’ said Hamish. Then he cursed. Black smoke was rising from the frying pan. He’d forgotten about the chops.
‘Sit down, laddie,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘I’ll just put this mess in the bin. I havenae any soft drinks, but I could make you some tea.’
‘I don’t want anything,’ said the boy in a whisper.
Hamish got rid of the chops. ‘Sit,’ he ordered. ‘You didn’t really think your da was responsible for the graffiti?’
Dermott hung his head.
‘I think,’ said Hamish gently, ‘that something at home is bothering you. I think you want a policeman to call. What’s going on at home?’
The child began to cry. Hamish fished a box of tissues out of a cupboard and handed it to him, then waited patiently.
At last the crying ended on a hiccupping sob. ‘Dad’s hitting Ma,’ he choked out.
‘Does he drink?’
‘It’s hard for me to do anything unless your mother puts in a complaint.’
‘You won’t tell the Social?’ gasped the boy in sudden alarm.
‘No, I won’t do that,’ said Hamish, knowing that no matter how bad the parents, abused children still lived in terror of being snatched from their homes by the Social Services. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll think of something.’
When the boy had gone, Hamish turned over in his mind what he knew about the boy’s father. Alistair Taggart took occasional building jobs down in Strathbane. Hamish couldn’t remember seeing him drinking in the village pub. Perhaps he did his drinking in Strathbane and drove home.
He was almost relieved to have an ordinary, if unpleasant, village problem to cope with instead of fretting that John Heppel would somehow bring trouble to the area.
O! he’s as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house. I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me
In any summer house in Christendom.
– William Shakespeare
It was one of those odd spring-like November days you occasionally get in the Highlands where a balmy wind blows in off the Gulf Stream. Hamish longed to go fishing, but Wednesday had come around, the evening of John’s first class, and he had not yet dealt with Dermott’s problem.
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2006
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing