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Book Report: This mystery worthy of Masterpiece Theatre

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I'm not a big fan of detective novels in general, but I'm a sucker for the works of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse ever since I bought 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.

Whew! 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 beleaguered gathering. Finally one of the guests opens the door of a chiffonier 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.


Several years ago my wife and I toured West Point, N.Y., then made our way back to a friend's home in Pawling, N.Y. at night.

It was a hair-raising drive, not because remnants of Tony Soprano's gang were having machine-gun practice.

No, it was deer. Deer everywhere in this populous exurban area with its grandiose houses, the mighty Hudson River, et. al. Fortunately we didn't hit one even though they were thicker than they are in northern Wisconsin.

Our friend from Pawling told us it was par for the course. The deer population once almost non-existent had come back in force. What were the human inhabitants to do?

I just received a book that might give the Empire State and its neighbors some relief, but it's not guaranteed they're going to be happy with the situation.

Cougar expert John W. Laundre has written, "Phantoms of the Prairie": The Return of Cougars to the Midwest" (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 paper). Laundre has been tracking their appearances for years.

They've been sighted here in Wisconsin, but Laundre' says that's not the end of it. He figures they'll make it all the way to the East Coast.

He thinks that's a "Good Thing" because it will restore the ecological balance that has been upset by the appearance of civilization.

Cougars, predicts Laundre, will put "deer in their ecological place," or more simply, they will eat them.

Laundre predicts that this may be upsetting to the human populations, like housewives out hanging up the wash and hunters who like the overpopulation of deer.

It's an interesting book in every respect and worth a look whether you're into ecology or not.