DEATH OF A GENTLE LADY: A HAMISH MACBETH MYSTERY, by M.C. Beaton, Grand Central, 256 pages, $23.99

This delightful, old-fashioned mystery is set in the village of Lochdubh, Scotland, where 50-year-old Hamish Macbeth is the local constable. This is the author's 23rd such mystery, a series she began following a career as a theater critic for the Scottish Daily Mail. Now a veteran of 30 years spinning charming, suspenseful Scottish tales, she seems better at it than ever.

The story begins with a new resident in the community, the tiny, elderly Mrs. Gentle, who moves into a large seaside castle. She wears lavender-colored clothes, with a delicate lavender tinge in her white hair. Initially, she seems kind and gracious and agrees to donate some serious money to the local church.

But when the redhaired Hamish Macbeth meets her, he is quickly offended. He overhears her dressing down her 50-year-old daughter and telling her she is a failure. Mrs. Gentle awkwardly displays her graceful side to him, but then, before he can leave, he overhears her attacking him.

Within a short time, Mrs. Gentle has criticized Hamish to others and suggested the local police station be closed, which would force Hamish to move or take another job. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gentle's beautiful, blonde Turkish maid, Ayesha, is fired — and when she tells Hamish, he instantly proposes to her.

A marriage in this case will both save the police station and protect Ayesha from being deported. Besides, Hamish has always wanted to be married. When Ayesha declares herself a lesbian, he is disappointed but continues with his plan.

On the day of the wedding, Ayesha disappears and the reception at the castle is ended abruptly. Just when nothing else could possibly go wrong, Mrs. Gentle is found murdered near the castle. Upon further investigation, Ayesha turns up murdered as well, and Hamish becomes a prime suspect.

That's a lengthy setup, but it propels the rest of the story into a comically serious investigation, as the reader becomes acquainted with Mrs. Gentle's suspicious children and sees reasons why all of them might have had a motive for murder.

Ayesha, it is soon discovered, was not Turkish after all, but a high-priced Russian call girl who was being financed by a Russian mafia. Whew. This is a lot for Hamish and his associates to deal with, but they do so with flair and eccentricity.

Although well-meaning most of the time, Hamish is not without his faults. Before her death, Ayesha's passport was illegally altered at the behest of Hamesh, thinking that would give her three more years before being deported.

The facile author manages to pull the loose ends together over the course of the novel, but not without other oddities, surprises, wit and a touch of class. The story is very British and very amusing once the reader gets into the rhythm of the characters and their strange interactions.

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