I am having coffee with M C Beaton in Stow-on-the-Wold’s classiest café, and she is entertaining company indeed. “All I ever wanted to do was be an entertainer. And write something for a wet day, or to give to a friend who was having a hard time,” she says.
Moreover, we are celebrating. It is 20 years since her first Agatha Raisin novel was published. This October, Hiss and Hers, the 23rd novel featuring her Cotswold-dwelling, cigarette-smoking, gin-drinking, hard-talking private detective will be published. With almost 800,000 Raisin novels sold in the UK, and the likes of Rowan Williams confessing to “going to bed with an Aggie”; there is happily no talk of either heroine or author retiring. Number 24 is well under way. “I’m in this for life,” says Beaton.
Though she couldn’t be friendlier, my prior research has revealed that Beaton is as no-nonsense as her heroine. And sure enough, it isn’t long before she fixes me with her clear blue eyes, and has her un-PC say about mink coats, Princess Diana, Barack Obama (“too intelligent to be US president, and the wrong shape”), Scottish sectarianism, and the smoking ban. “I hate the nanny state. The next thing we know, they’ll be coming and snatching cream cakes out of our mouths.” Like her creator, Agatha Raisin is an unashamed smoker, and even more outspoken. “Agatha says things I wouldn’t say. She’s an extension of the worst of me.”
Born in the north of Glasgow, M C Beaton grew up in a house where everybody “sat round the fire with stacks of books”. She spent hours in the city’s libraries. “They were palaces of dreams. We lived in the north of Glasgow but the best library then was Gorbals Library. So we’d take the tram down and load up our string bags.” Fitting, then, that Beaton is now a great favourite in libraries herself: the most recent PLR figures reveal that she is the UK’s fourth most borrowed adult author.
The young M C Beaton devoured detective novels by authors including Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers: “I got a copy of Lord Peter Views the Body for my 11th birthday and I was off and running.” Her favourite book is Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day. “It’s his southern cynicism. I like black humour.” Her first novels were romances, however, after she decided she could write better (and be more historically accurate) than Georgette Heyer. She went on to publish more than 100 titles set in Regency times, turning to crime at the point when she found herself “desperate to get out of 1820”.
The other foundation of her crime writing career were the five years she spent working as a bookseller for John Smith & Son in Glasgow’s St Vincent Street. “Bookselling was a profession then. You had to know every book in the shop. We were lined up on the Monday, and we were supposed to have read all the reviews in the Observer, Sunday Times, New Statesman and Listener. We’d get the Times Literary Supplement free because we practically had to memorise that.”
At about the same time, Beaton began to write theatre reviews for the Scottish Daily Mail, and a career in journalism followed—including an eye-opening spell as a crime reporter for the Scottish Daily Express, where she witnessed first hand the terrible poverty in Glasgow’s crime-ridden tenements. After she married the Daily Express’ former Middle East correspondent Harry Scott Gibbons, they went travelling, had a son, Charles, and spent some eventful years in the US, including a down-and-out spell living in a doss house “with hot and cold running winos”. They returned to Scotland in 1984 and lived in a croft in Sutherland. That led to her first detective series, featuring laid-back Highland police officer Hamish Macbeth, later made for TV starring a pre-“Trainspotting” Robert Carlyle. Want to know what Beaton thought of the series? Well, she got a book out of it. It was called Death of a Scriptwriter.
Raisin is born
Beaton and her husband moved south to Gloucestershire in 1990, whereupon Hope Dellon—her US editor at St Martin’s Press, enchanted, like most Americans, by the Cotswolds—suggested that Beaton use the area as the setting for a new detective series. The character of Agatha Raisin derived variously from E F Benson’s Lucia and Miss Mapp stories; Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair; and the thrusting PRs Beaton encountered during her newspaper days. “She’s middle-aged and rather pushy. Someone you may not necessarily like, but want to win out in the end.”
Doesn’t she ever want to write about the dark side like other contemporary crime novelists? “Well the further away you are from it, the more you want to write about it. If you’ve seen it, you don’t.” Instead, her Raisin novels are full of delightfully nasty occurrences in the woodshed of village life. Before you can say Moreton-in-Marsh, a sharp implement will materialise from under someone’s tweeds, and bodies start appearing with a regularity Jo Nesbo would be proud of. “I read an Evelyn Waugh story featuring a detective writer, who thought that one corpse per book was enough. ‘If you have more than one, you are not being conscientious.’ And I thought, oh what the hell, and bumped off someone else”.
Agatha Raisin made her début in The Quiche of Death, which features the mysterious poisoning of the judge of a village quiche-making competition. Since then, Raisin has grappled with a catalogue of rural crimes. A vet, murdered with his own syringe of horse tranquiliser. A village lothario, stabbed with the vicar’s letter opener. A leading light in amateur dramatics killed by cyanide in her roses. And in Hiss and Hers, the slaying by snake bite of the village philanderer, who is the latest in the romantically inept Raisin’s catalogue of unwise crushes. She discovers his body in the compost heap after spotting his protruding prosthetic leg.
I love the name, Agatha Raisin, I say. “Agatha came from Christie, and from Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha in P G Wodehouse. And because it’s a bit of a bullying name.” And Raisin? “For wrinkles,” she says, blue eyes a-twinkle. And yet, despite her paranoia about getting old, the perennially middle-aged Agatha doesn’t age. “And neither do I,” chortles her creator. “I’ve been lying about my age for years. Last year Krystyna (Green, her editor at Constable) phoned up and said: ‘We’re holding a banquet to celebrate your 75th.’ And I thought: ‘But I haven’t done 75 books yet.’”
Publication date: 04/10/12
Formats: £14.99 HB, EB
ISBNs: 9781849019729/ 9781780330778
Rights sold: US (Minotaur Books)
Editor: Krystyna Green, Constable & Robinson
Agent: Barbara Lowenstein Lowenstein Associates, New York
1936 Born in Glasgow
Worked as a fiction buyer at John Smith & Son; reporter and reviewer for the Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Daily Express and the Daily Express
1990 Moves to the Cotswolds
1992 Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death published
Has written over 100 historical romances under pseudonyms; also 28 Hamish Macbeth novels
M C Beaton's Top Five
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death
Robinson, 9781849011341, £6.99
First in the series sees Agatha retire to a new life in the Cotswolds. She enters a local quiche-making competition—with dramatic results.
Books sold: 46,700 since 1998
Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet
Robinson, 9781849011358, £6.99
Second in the series, and the attractive local vet is killed in an accident with a horse—in suspicious circumstances.
Books sold: 35,000 since 1998
Agatha Raisin and the Deadly Dance
Robinson, 9781849011488, £6.99
Number 15 in the series. Wealthy divorcee Catherine Laggat-Brown gives Agatha a case involving death threats.
Books sold: 29,000 since 2006
Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley
Robinson, 9781849011372, £6.99
Fourth in the series. A hiker who spent her life enraging landowners with her hobby is found dead in a field.
Books sold: 28,000 since 1998
Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye
Robinson, 9781849011518, £6.99
Book number 18, and whilst Agatha plans the perfect Christmas, Mrs Tamworth is poisoned with hemlock.
Books sold: 28,000 since 2007