Death of a Poison Pen


By M. C. Beaton

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Travel to the Scotland Highlands with this classic Hamish Macbeth cozy mystery from the author of the Agatha Raisin series.

Death of a Poison Pen: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery

When the residents of Lochdubh begin receiving poison pen letters, no one takes them seriously. But Constable Hamish Macbeth fears them, and his instincts prove correct when the postmistress is found hanging from a rope with a vicious poison pen letter at her feet.


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I'm not a jealous woman, but I can't see what he sees in her, I can't see what he sees in her, I can't see what he sees in her!

—Sir Alan Patrick Herbert

Jenny Ogilvie was curled up on a sofa in her friend Priscilla Halburton-Smythe's London flat. They had been talking for most of the evening. Jenny was secretly jealous of Priscilla's cool blonde looks. Although an attractive girl herself with her mop of black curls and rosy cheeks, she longed to look as stylish and composed as her friend.

A desire to rattle her friend's calm prompted her to say, "You've talked an awful lot about this village policeman, Hamish Macbeth. I mean, you've barely mentioned your fiancé. Come on. What gives? I think you're still in love with this copper."

A faint tide of pink rose up Priscilla's face. "I was engaged to him once and we shared a lot of adventures. But that's all. What about your love life? You've been letting me do all the talking."

"Oh, you know me. I like to shop around," said Jenny. "I'm not prepared to settle down yet."

"What happened to Giles? You did seem frightfully keen on him."

"He bored me after a bit," lied Jenny, who had no intention of letting Priscilla know that Giles had broken off with her the minute she had hinted at marriage.

"You'll find someone. Don't worry," said Priscilla with all the calm assurance of someone about to be married.

Jenny returned to her own flat, feeling jealous and cross. It was a pity, she thought, that Priscilla's policeman should live in some remote Highland village or she would be tempted to have a go at him herself. He must be one hell of a man to occupy so much of Priscilla's thoughts. She went to her bookshelves and pulled down an atlas of the British Isles. Now, where had Priscilla said that village was? Lochdoo or something. She scanned the index. There was a Lochdubh. That must be it. Maybe like "skeandhu," the dagger Highlanders wore with full dress. She looked it up in the dictionary. That was pronounced skeandoo. Also spelt "skeandubh." So it followed that Lochdubh must be the place. She knew Priscilla's parents owned the Tommel Castle Hotel there. Just to be sure, she phoned directory enquiries and got the number of the Tommel Castle Hotel and asked for the exact location of Lochdubh. Got it! She replaced the receiver.

She put down the atlas and sat cross-legged on the floor. She had holiday owing. What if—just what if—she went to this village and romanced the copper? How would Priscilla like that?

Not a bit, she thought with a grin. She would ask for leave in the morning.

The subject of Jenny's plotting took a stroll along Lochdubh's waterfront the next morning with his dog, Lugs. PC Hamish Macbeth was preoccupied with a nasty case. The nearby town of Braikie had been subjected to a rash of poison-pen letters. At first people had ignored them because the accusations in some of them were so weird and wild and inaccurate that they hadn't been taken seriously. But as the letters continued to arrive, tempers were rising.

Mrs. Dunne, who owned a bed and breakfast on the waterfront called Sea View, hailed him. She was a fussy little woman who looked perpetually anxious and tired.

"Morning," said Mrs. Dunne. "Terrible business about those nasty letters."

"You havenae had one, have you?" asked Hamish.

"No, but I just heard that herself, Mrs. Wellington, got one this morning."

"I'd better go and see her. Business good?"

"Not a bad summer, but nobody really books in now it's autumn. I've got a couple of the forestry workers as regulars. Though mind you, a lassie from London is coming for a couple of weeks, a Miss Ogilvie. She phoned this morning."

Hamish touched his cap and walked off in the direction of the manse, for Mrs. Wellington, large, tweedy, and respectable, was the minister's wife.

Mrs. Wellington was pulling up weeds in her garden. She straightened up when she saw Hamish.

"I've just heard you've had one o' thae letters." Hamish fixed her with a gimlet stare to distract her from the sight of his dog urinating against the roots of one of her prize roses. "Why didn't you phone the police station?"

She looked flustered. "It was nothing but a spiteful piece of nonsense. I threw it on the fire."

"I can do with all the evidence I can get," said Hamish severely. "Now, you've got to tell me what was in that letter. Furthermore, I've never known you to light a fire before the end of October."

Mrs. Wellington capitulated. "Oh, very well. I'll get it. Wait there. And keep that dog of yours away from my flowers."

Hamish waited, wondering what could possibly be so bad as to make the upright minister's wife initially lie to him.

Mrs. Wellington came back and handed him a letter. On the envelope was her name and address in handwriting now familiar to Hamish from the other letters he had in a file back at the police station. He opened it and took out a piece of cheap stationery and began to read. Then he roared with laughter. For the poison-pen letter writer had accused Mrs. Wellington of having an adulterous affair with the Lochdubh policeman—Hamish Macbeth.

When he had recovered, he wiped his eyes and said, "This is so daft. Why didnae you want to show it to me?"

"I know your reputation as a womaniser, Hamish Macbeth, and I thought this letter might give you ideas."

Hamish's good humour left and his hazel eyes held a malicious gleam. "I am in my thirties and you are—what—in your fifties? Don't you think you are suffering from a wee bit o' vanity?"

Her face flamed. "There are winter-summer relationships, you know. I read about them in Cosmopolitan—at the dentist's. And when I was in the cinema with my husband the other week, a young man on the other side of me put a hand on my knee!"

"Michty me," said Hamish. "What happened when the lights went up?"

"He had left by that time," said Mrs. Wellington stiffly, not wanting to tell this jeering policeman that during a bright scene on the screen, the young man had leant forward and looked at her and fled.

"And I am not a womaniser," pursued Hamish.

"Ho, no? You broke off your engagement to poor Priscilla, and since then you've been playing fast and loose."

"I'll take this letter with me," said Hamish, suddenly weary. "But rest assured, I have not the designs on you, not now, not ever!"

Back at the police station, he added the letter to the others in the file. There was a knock at the kitchen door. He went to answer it and found Elspeth Grant, the local reporter and astrologer for the Highland Times, standing there. She was dressed in her usual mixture of thrift shop clothes: old baggy sweater, long Indian cotton skirt, and clumpy boots.

"What brings you?" asked Hamish. "I havenae seen you for a while."

"I've been showing the new reporter the ropes."

"Pat Mallone," said Hamish. "The attractive Irishman."

"Yes, him. And he is attractive. Are you going to ask me in?"

"Sure." He stood aside. Elspeth sat down at the kitchen table. The day was misty and drops of moisture hung like little pearls in her frizzy hair. Her large grey eyes, Gypsy eyes, surveyed him curiously. He felt a little pang of loss. At one time, Elspeth had shown him that she was attracted to him but he had rejected her and by the time he had changed his mind about her, she was no longer interested.

"So," began Elspeth, "I hear Mrs. Wellington got one of those letters."

"How did you learn that?"

"She told Nessie Currie, who told everyone in Patel's grocery. What on earth was in it?"

"Mind your own business."

"All right, copper. What are you doing about these letters? They're weird and wild in their accusations, but one day one's going to hit the mark and there'll be a death. Haven't you asked for a handwriting expert?"

"Oh, I've asked headquarters, right enough, but it is always the same thing. Handwriting experts cost money. The budget is tight. It's chust a village storm in a teacup and will soon blow over, that's what they say." Hamish's Highland accent always became more sibilant when he was excited or upset. "So I sit on my bum collecting nasty letters."

"There is something you could do and I'll tell you if you make me a cup of tea."

Hamish put the kettle on top of the stove and lifted down two mugs from the kitchen cabinet. "So what's your idea?"

"It's like this. Someone always knows something. You could call an emergency meeting at the community centre in Braikie and appeal to the people of Braikie to help you. I could run off flyers at the newspaper and we could post them up in shops and on lampposts. Someone knows something, I'm sure of that. Go on, Hamish. I feel in my bones that death is going to come and come quickly."

Hamish looked at her uneasily. He had experienced Elspeth's psychic powers and had learned that, at times, they were uncanny.

"All right," he said. "I'll do it. Let's see. This is Monday. We'll make it for next Saturday evening."

"No, make it around lunchtime, say one o'clock. There's a big bingo game on Saturday evening."

"Okay. I'll leave it to you."

Hamish made tea. "What sort of person would you say was behind these letters?"

"Someone living alone, no family. Maybe someone retired who once had some power over people. Probably a woman."

"There are an awful lot of widows and spinsters in Braikie."

"Never mind. Let's hope this meeting flushes something out."

After Elspeth had left, he noticed she had left him a copy of the Highland Times. Curiously, he turned to her astrology column and looked under "Libra." He read: "Romance is heading your way but it is a romance you will not want. You will suffer from headaches on Wednesday morning. You are not working hard enough. You are congenitally lazy, but remember always that mistakes caused by laziness can cause death."

Hamish scratched his fiery hair. What on earth was the lassie on about?

On Saturday morning, Jenny Ogilvie looked out of the window of the bus that was bearing her northwards and felt she was leaving civilisation behind. She had flown to Inverness and caught the Lochinver bus. She had been told, however, that the bus to take her on to Lochdubh from Lochinver would have left by the time she arrived, but a local taxi could take her the rest of the way. Moorland and mountain stretched on either side. Foaming waterfalls plunged down craggy slopes. Red deer stood as if posing for Landseer on the top of hills as the bus wound its way round twisting roads, breaking sharply to avoid the occasional suicidal sheep.

She had decided to book into a bed and breakfast in Lochdubh rather than stay at the Tommel Castle Hotel, in case Priscilla might learn from her parents of her arrival. The bus finally ground its way down into Lochinver and stopped on the waterfront. It was a fine day and sunlight was sparkling on the water.

Jenny climbed stiffly down from the bus and retrieved her luggage. She took out her mobile phone and dialled the number of a taxi service in Lochdubh she had tracked down by dint of phoning the Sutherland tourist board. Better to have someone from Lochdubh to collect her than get a cab from Lochinver.

A pleasant Highland voice on the other end of the line informed her that he would be with her in three-quarters of an hour and if she sat in the café on the waterfront, he would find her.

Jenny went into the café and ordered a coffee, forcing her eyes away from a tempting display of home-baked cakes. It was all right for Priscilla, she thought bitterly. Priscilla could eat anything and never even put on an ounce, whereas she, Jenny, could feel her waistband tightening by just looking at the things.

She was the only customer in the café. She noticed there was a large glass ashtray on the table in front of her. Jenny was trying to cut down on smoking, but she hadn't been able to have one all day. She lit one up and felt dizzy, but after two more, felt better. The sun was already disappearing and the water outside darkening to black when a man popped his head round the door. "Miss Ogilvie?"

Jenny rose and indicated her luggage. "The cab is outside," he said. "I would help you with your luggage, but my back's bad."

Hoisting her two large suitcases outside, Jenny stared in dismay at the "cab." It was a minibus painted bright red on the front, but because the owner, Iain Chisholm, had run out of paint, the rest was painted a sulphurous yellow. Inside, the seats were covered in brightly coloured chintz with flounces at the bottom of each seat.

Jenny heaved her luggage in the side door and then decided to sit up in the front with Iain and see if she could pump him for some information.

The engine coughed and spluttered to life and the bus started its journey out of Lochinver and headed up the Sutherland coast to Lochdubh. "I'm up from London," said Jenny.

"Is that a fact?" said Iain, negotiating a hairpin bend. Jenny glanced nervously down a cliff edge to where the Atlantic boiled against jagged rocks.

"What's Lochdubh like?" asked Jenny.

"Oh, it's the grand place. Nice and quiet."

"No crime?"

"Nothing much. Bit of a scare now, mind you. Some damp poison-pen letter writer's on the loose."

"How scary. Do you have a policeman?"

"Yes. Hamish Macbeth."

"What's he like?"

"A fine man. Solved a lot of crimes."

"What's such a clever copper doing being stuck up here?"

"He likes it and so do I," said Iain crossly.

Jenny was dying to ask what Hamish looked like, but she didn't dare show any more curiosity. Surely, someone who could attract such as Priscilla must be really handsome. He was probably tall and dark with a craggy Highland face and piercing green eyes. When not in uniform, he probably wore a kilt and played the bagpipes. Jenny clutched the side of the old minivan as it hurtled onwards towards Lochdubh, wrapped in rosy dreams.

Earlier that day, Hamish addressed the inhabitants of Braikie in the community hall. "Some of you must know something—have an idea who is sending out these poisonous letters," he said. He noticed uneasily that people were beginning to glare around the hall. "Now, don't go leaping to conclusions because you just don't like someone," he said quickly. "Maybe if you all go home and think hard, you might remember"—he held up an envelope—"someone posting one of these in a pillar box. Just on the chance that our letter writer is here in this hall, I would caution you that when you are caught—and you will be caught, mark my words—then you will be facing a prison sentence. I am going to engage the services of a handwriting expert—"

"What took ye so long?" demanded an angry voice from the front. "You should ha' done it afore this."

"I was told that because of cutbacks in the police budget, they were not prepared to let me hire one," said Hamish. "On your way out, you will see a petition on the table at the door requesting the services of a handwriting expert from police headquarters. I want you all to sign it."

Hamish was mildly annoyed to see Elspeth in the front row accompanied by Pat Mallone, the new reporter. It only took one reporter to cover this. Did she have to go everywhere with him? He was whispering in her ear and she was giggling like a schoolgirl.

"This is a serious matter," he went on, raising his voice. "And should be taken seriously by our local press as well." Elspeth looked up and composed her features and made several squiggles in her notebook. "The accusations in these letters so far are silly and untrue, but if by any chance this poison-pen letter writer should hit on the truth about someone, maybe by accident, then at the least it could cause misery and at the worst, death. Now sign that petition. It is your civic duty."

The audience rose to their feet. Aware of Hamish, still standing on the stage watching them, one by one they all signed the petition as they filed out.

When the hall was empty, Hamish leapt down from the stage and collected the petition. He would take it down to Strathbane in the morning and see if it prompted them to give him a handwriting expert.

Jenny Ogilvie was dropped outside Sea View. She hefted her suitcases up to the door, rang the bell, and waited. The village was very quiet and great stars blazed in the sky above. A chill wind was blowing off the loch. She shivered and rang the bell again. At last she heard footsteps approaching the door from the other side. "Who is it?" called a voice.

"It's me. Jenny Ogilvie from London."

The grumbles coming from the other side of the door reminded Jenny of the cartoon dog Muttley. Then the door opened. "What time of night d'ye call this?" demanded Mrs. Dunne.

"I have come all the way from London," said Jenny coldly. "And if this is the sort of welcome you give visitors, perhaps I would be better off at the hotel."

In the light streaming out from the door, Jenny had seemed to Mrs. Dunne like a small girl. But the cold authority in Jenny's voice made her say hurriedly, "Come in, lassie. You must forgive me. We aye keep early hours. I'll show you to your room. I only serve the bed and breakfast, mind, but if you're hungry, I've got some food I can give you."

"Just a sandwich and some coffee would be fine," said Jenny.

"Right. Pick up your suitcases and follow me."

This was obviously a world where no one carried anyone's luggage, thought Jenny as she struggled up the wooden staircase after Mrs. Dunne.

Mrs. Dunne opened the door. "This is your room. I've given you the best one, it being quiet this time of year."

Jenny looked dismally round, wondering, if this was the best room, what on earth the others were like. A forty-watt bulb burned in a pink and white glass shade. There was a narrow bed under a slippery quilt against one wall. A closet covered by a curtain, which Mrs. Dunne pulled back with a magician's proud flourish, was where she would hang her clothes. A wash-hand basin of Victorian vintage with a pink glass mirror above it was over in one far corner, and in the other stood a desk and a hard upright chair. In front of the fireplace, filled with orange crepe paper in the shape of a fan, stood a one-bar heater. The floor was covered in shiny green linoleum, on which were two islands of round rugs.

"You put fifty pee in the meter to start the fire," said Mrs. Dunne. "Breakfast is from seven o'clock until nine o'clock, no later. I'll expect you to be out of your room by ten because I have to clean it and I don't want guests underfoot. You can sit in the lounge downstairs if it's a wet day. We have the telly—colour, it is. Now I'll show you the bathroom."

Jenny followed her along the corridor outside to a room at the end of it. The bathroom held an enormous Victorian bath. Above it was a cylindrical gas heater. "When you want a bath, put fifty pee in the meter above the door, turn this lever to the right, and light the geyser."

"Do you mean I don't have my own bathroom?" asked Jenny.

"No, but there's only the two forestry workers and they're out early and don't use the bath much."

Jenny repressed a shudder. "What about laundry?"

"What about it? Can't you be doing your smalls in the hand basin?"

"No, I would prefer to do them in a washing machine with a tumble dryer."

Mrs. Dunne sighed. "Well, you can use the one in the kitchen downstairs, but only if I don't need it. There's no tumble dryer but you'll find a clothesline in the back garden. Go and unpack and come downstairs and have something to eat."

Jenny returned to her room. She felt thoroughly tired and depressed. She hoped this policeman would prove to be worth all this suffering. She opened one suitcase and unpacked a diaphanous nightgown and a silk dressing gown and laid them on the bed. Then she began to hang away some clothes and put underwear in the drawers.

When she heard Mrs. Dunne calling her, she went reluctantly downstairs. "I've put your food on a tray in the lounge," said Mrs. Dunne. "When you're finished, put the tray in the kitchen—it's at the back of the hall—and don't forget to switch out all the lights. Good night."

"Good night," echoed Jenny. She went into the lounge. It was an uncomfortable-looking room with an acid three-piece suite which seemed to swear at the orange and sulphurous-yellow carpet. Above the cold fireplace some amateur had tried to copy the Stag at Bay and failed miserably. The television was operated by a coin box. A tray on the coffee table held a plate of ham sandwiches, two fairy cakes, and a pot of tea. The ham sandwiches turned out to be delicious and the tea was hot and fragrant. Slightly cheered, Jenny finished her supper and carried the tray through to the kitchen. Then, carefully switching out all the lights behind her, she made her way up to her room.

It was very cold. London had been enjoying an Indian summer. She had not expected it to be so cold. She scrabbled in her purse looking for a fifty-pee piece but could not find one. She washed her face and hands, deciding to put off a bath until the following day. Shivering in her flimsy nightgown, she crawled into bed. There were two hot-water bottles in the bed and the sheets smelled faintly of pine soap. The bed was amazingly soft and comfortable. Jenny, normally a restless sleeper, plunged down into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Hamish drove towards Strathbane the following morning with Lugs beside him on the passenger seat of the police Land Rover and with the petition in a briefcase in the back. It was a beautiful clear day. Not even a single cloud wreathed the soaring mountain tops. A heron flew across the road in front of him, slow and graceful. The air was heavy with the smells of pine, wood smoke, and wild thyme.

But his heart sank as the Land Rover crested a rise on the road and he saw Strathbane lying below him—the City of Dreadful Night. It had originally been a thriving fishing port, but European Union regulations and a decline in fishing stocks had put the fishermen out of business. Stalinist tower blocks reared up to the sky, monuments to failure and bad architecture.

He was lucky it was a Sunday. The bane of his life, Detective Chief Inspector Blair, hardly ever worked on Sunday. Hamish knew Blair would block any proposal of his out of sheer spite. He was even luckier to meet Chief Superintendent Peter Daviot in the reception area.

"What brings you, Hamish?" asked Daviot.

It was a good sign that he had used Hamish's first name. Hamish held out the petition and explained his need for the services of a handwriting expert.

"We have an overstretched budget," said Daviot. "Don't you think it'll just blow over?"

"No, I don't," said Hamish.

"Don't what?"

"I mean, I don't think it'll blow over, sir. It's been going on for some time. My concern is this: If we don't track down this poison-pen letter writer soon, he or she, instead of wild accusations, might hit on a truth that someone doesn't want known. Braikie's a very churchy place. Everyone prides themselves on their respectability. It could be that one of these letters could drive a man or woman to suicide."

Daviot looked at the tall policeman with the flaming-red hair. He knew that when it came to cases, Hamish Macbeth often showed remarkable powers of intuition.

"Type up a report and give it with the petition to Helen."

"Thank you, sir."

Hamish made his way up to the detectives' room where Detective Jimmy Anderson sat with his feet up on his desk.

"I was just thinking of going out for a dram," he said when he saw Hamish.

"Give me a minute, Jimmy," said Hamish. "I've got to type something out for Daviot."

"So what's so important the big cheese has to see it himself?"

Hamish told him as he switched on a computer.

"Hardly earth-shaking stuff, laddie. Tell you what. I'll be along at the Wee Man's. Join me when you're finished."

No one could remember why the nearest pub, the Fraser Arms, had been nicknamed the Wee Man's.

Jimmy left. Hamish rapidly typed up his report and nipped up the stairs to where Helen, Daviot's secretary, gave him a sour look.

"Working on the Sabbath, Helen?" asked Hamish.

"If you have something for Mr. Daviot, leave it with me and do not waste my valuable time."

Hamish gazed on her fondly. "You know something, Helen? You're right ugly when you're angry." And then he scampered off before she could think of a reply.


On Sale
Jul 31, 2007
Page Count
256 pages

M. C. Beaton

About the Author

M. C. Beaton, hailed as the "Queen of Crime" by the Globe and Mail, was the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Agatha Raisin novels—the basis for the hit series on Acorn TV and public television—as well as the Hamish Macbeth series. Born in Scotland, Beaton started her career writing historical romances under several pseudonyms as well as her maiden name, Marion Chesney. Her books have sold more than twenty-two million copies worldwide.

A long-time friend of M. C. Beaton, R. W. Green has written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. He lives in Surrey with his family and a black Labrador called Flynn.

Learn more about this author