Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book 4: Death of a Snob by M.C. Beaton

Through being an English major, working in publishing and going to library school I have discovered an interesting thing about most serious book lovers: they have some sort of semi-secret trashy tendency. For some its romance novels, for others it is crime thrillers, or sci-fi. But almost every person I have met seems drawn to one genre of "pop" fiction or another. These are the kinds of people who will happily discuss Goethe or Delillo for hours, however, when they think no one is looking, they pick up a mass-market paperback. I do not exclude myself from their ranks. I love detective novels. This is a subject I briefly touched on before. When I am sick, stressed, or traveling I will always pick up a few.

This being the end of the semester with all the projects and presentations that always entails, I skittered over to the library and selected a few mysteries for my (scant) downtime. One of the titles that caught my eye was M.C. Beaton's Death of a Snob. It had a title reminiscent of an Agatha Christie book, and a quick review of the book jacket showed that it looked like a pretty classic type of detective tale. Contemporary detective stories seem to rely too much on science or technology for my tastes, I like a detective who is happy to use his or her brain. Death of a Snob seemed right up my alley.

Death of a Snob
centers around Detective Hamish Macbeth, who lives in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. It is almost Christmas, Hamish thinks he is dying from the flu (when all he really has is a mild cold), and his family has asked him not to come for the holidays as an American aunt who can't stand him has made a surprise visit. He is miserable. But a solution for his desolation arrives in the form of Jane Weatherby, a glamorous divorcee who thinks someone is trying to kill her. She is the proprietor of a health spa on a remote Scottish island, where the locals are anything but friendly. As a solution for both of their problems, it is agreed that Hamish will come to the spa for the holidays to investigate. The spa is closed for the winter, but is not empty as Jane has invited some friends and acquaintances to join her for Christmas. Among this unusual lot are a couple of farmers with a shocking secret, Jane's bitter and wealthy ex-husband, a social climbing couple who have fallen on hard times, and a well-meaning cookbook author. Hamish slips into their presence under an assumed name and occupation, and proceeds to look into Jane's concerns. The group does not gel well, and after a particularly nasty afternoon, one of the party disappears and is later found dead, have hit (or been hit with) a large rock, and tumbling off a small precipice. The circumstances make it seem as though the death was an accident, and as it is Christmas, the local police are willing to write of as such, but Hamish is not willing to let the issue be settled so easily. With the assistance of Harriet, the cookbook author, he dives right in.

I liked Death of a Snob, very much, up to a certain point. The period up to the murder was excellent. The mounting frustration of the entire group at the spa was palpable. The characters were perfect for this sort of novel. Interesting, light, and all slightly off. No one could escape suspicion completely. However, after the murder, the plot takes a bizarre and unsatisfying turn. It as almost as though the first half of the novel was pointless. Hamish is a charming main character, both warm and quirky, and I would be happy to give M.C. Beaton another shot sometime in the future. But as for this particular novel? It was ruined by an overworked second half and too much effort in trying to keep the identity of the murderer a huge surprise.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Apple-Cranberry Scones

Following along the cranberry theme, here is a recipe for apple-cranberry scones I adapted it for fall from the delicious basic scone recipe of Sara Foster of North Carolina's Foster Market:

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 1/2 cups chopped and peeled Granny Smith apples
1 cup dried cranberries
1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk or water

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets and set aside.

3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.

4. Add the butter and cut it into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. (Or use a food processor fitted with the metal blade to cut the butter into the flour mixture by pulsing 10 to 12 times. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl to continue making the dough.) Do not overwork the dough.

5. Add the apples, cranberries, and cinnamon and mix lightly.

6. Add 1¼ cups of the buttermilk and mix until just combined and the dough begins to stick together. Add the remaining buttermilk one tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry.

7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll or pat into two 6-inch rounds, about 1½ inches thick. Cut each round in half, then cut each half into 3 triangles (pie-shaped wedges) and place on the baking sheets. Brush the tops with the egg wash.

8. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and firm to touch. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Serve with Barry's Gold Blend Irish tea, butter, and jam. (I recommend Stonewall Kitchen's Orange-Cranberry Marmalade.)