From the Scottish Highlands to the English Cotswolds, M.C. Beaton laces lovely landscapes with an acidic wit.
During her writing career, M.C. Beaton has been called many things—Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine, Charlotte Ward, and her real name, Marion Chesney.
Marion Chesney has had just as many professions—bookseller, journalist, theater critic, fashion magazine editor, crime reporter, BBC commentator, and of course she is the author of the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series.
Chesney/Beaton’s push for variety led her to publish 101 historical romance novels and 44 mysteries.
Her prolific output has earned her a legion of readers on both sides of the pond, who are drawn to her two witty, well-plotted series that foster a contemporary version of the English village mysteries. She’s often been compared to Agatha Christie.
Last year, Beaton was the British guest of honor at two mystery fiction conferences, the Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin, and Magna cum Murder at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Beaton shows no sign of slowing down. Death of a Chimney Sweep, her 26th novel about the artfully lazy police constable Hamish Macbeth came out in February 2011. The 22nd novel about prickly, pushy Agatha Raisin, to be called As the Pig Turns, is scheduled for publication in fall 2011. She has also written four Edwardian detective novels.
Hamish Macbeth is featured on a popular BBC television series that has been shown in the U.S. on PBS and is now available on DVD. The Agatha Raisin novels have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4.
In person, Beaton—let’s call her that for the sake of simplicity and because that’s how most of her mystery readers know her—is a diminutive British lady who is charming and quick-witted, prone to peppering her answers with a joke, a smile or a quote from George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, or W. Somerset Maugham.
Each turn in Beaton’s life has prepared her for a career in crime writing. At least, it seems that’s exactly where she has been heading since her birth in Glasgow, Scotland in 1936. When she was 11, one of her first crushes was Richard Hannay, the hero in The Thirty-Nine Steps. She graduated to Lord Peter Wimsey at age 13. Hanging out at libraries and devouring novels became her favorite pastime.
Her career as a journalist began at age 18 with a cookbook. While working in Glasgow as a bookseller, she helped a customer find a cookbook for a bachelor. On a coffee break a few weeks later, she met the woman again and it turned out she was the features editor of the Glasgow Daily Mail. The editor needed a reporter who could cover a play. Other reporters had turned down the assignment because a nephew of the editor was in the play and any review would have to mention him. Beaton had 50 words to review the play—and, of course, had to throw in a line about the nephew.
Beaton’s turn as a theater critic was followed by stints as a fashion writer, a crime writer, and finally work as a journalist on London’s Fleet Street.
“I would walk down Fleet Street at night and smell the hot paper and see St. Paul’s floodlit and think this was it. It was like six characters in search of an author. Everyone told me it was an exciting job,” said Beaton who added she wasn’t sure she liked being a reporter.
“I used to have Walter Mitty fantasies and if I had a good one, I would save it for the way home. And I read detective stories, one after the other.”
Beaton’s leap to novelist began after she and her husband, Harry Scott Gibbons, a former Middle East correspondent, moved to Brooklyn Heights where they both worked for Rupert Murdoch’s Star newspaper. She began reading Regency romances written by American writers and found herself getting madder and madder.
“I said to my husband, ‘These are crap. The history is wrong, the dialogue is silly, the scenery is off and the writing is just bad.’”
So her husband issued her a challenge—write one herself. It took her agent three days to sell her first Regency novel. The agent took the manuscript on a Friday and by Monday had it sold based on Beaton’s first 50 pages and a plot outline. A month later her agent asked if she could also write novels set in Edwardian times.
“I said ‘sure.’ I thought it was going to be like ‘have some Madeira, my dear,’ but they wanted some candlelight romances.”
Starting in 1979, Beaton began churning out Regency and Edwardian novels and, along the way, acquired an impressive library on the history and fashion of the times.
“It’s not just the history you are writing; it’s the clothing, the snobbery, the feel of the times and the double standards. And the 13th commandment—thou shalt not get found out,” said Beaton, who added that she has begun to weary writing about those eras.
She may have tired of the period, but not of writing. Her debut as M.C. Beaton was just around the corner. You might say she just needed the right hook.
While living in Brooklyn, she and her husband vacationed at a fishing school in an isolated Scottish village. While learning about fly casting, she got to thinking about murder. What better place to set a mystery, she thought, than this remote wilderness.
“Here were 11 of us trapped in the wilderness. What a wonderful place for a murder! Especially this one woman who was irritating the hell out of me.”
Beaton talked to her editor about a series set in Scotland, maintaining the area was ripe for stories.
“You could set your watch back 100 years [in north Scotland],” she said. “It’s like a sped-up nature film. You could believe in fairies up there. It is very beautiful. It’s a fascinating mix of people—those who treat everyone the same way; the cowboys and, yes we have cowboys in Scotland, who can’t stand to see anyone getting on. They don’t like incomers. It’s good for detective stories, what with its weird landscape, twisted mountains and totally landlocked center. It’s as if being in a time-away land.”
Her agent agreed that Beaton certainly had the setting and the makings of a good plot. There was just one problem.
“She said, but who is the detective?” said Beaton. “I wasn’t going to tell her I hadn’t thought that far. So I said off the top of my head ‘the village bobby.’ So then she has to ask another question—‘What’s his name?’ Well, again, I just said off the top of my head ‘Hamish Macbeth.’”
That was the beginning of Hamish Macbeth, the local constable in Lochdubh, a quiet village in the Scottish Highlands. And not so coincidently, Hamish’s debut in Death of a Gossip in 1985 featured a local fishing school. Beaton’s light approach and snappy dialogue launched her new writing career. Hamish, who “understands the happiness and contentment of the truly unambitious man,” struck a chord with readers.
With a new genre, it was also time for a new name. Her romance novels had been written under several different names.
“Half the time, I didn’t know who I was,” she said.
Her agent told her that since she had made a name—actually several names—for herself with the romances, she needed a new nom de plume so the readers wouldn’t be confused.
“She said give me a name that sounds Scottish, but is not a ‘Mac’ something,” she said. So the author quickly recited an old Scottish ballad:
“Yestreen the queen had four Maries,
The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaten,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.”
The agent said she would take Beaton, and the author said she would keep M.C. for Marion Chesney. And a new mystery writer was born.
For several years, Beaton’s popularity increased with each Hamish Macbeth novel. But Beaton wasn’t content to write just one series. During the 1980s, she and her husband moved back to the Cotswolds in the heart of England, a picturesque area famous for its honey-colored limestone villages, castles, and history. The Cotswolds encompass the cities of Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon and Warwick; the Rollright Stones, considered England’s third most important stone circle after Stonehenge and Avebury; and Malmesbury Abbey.
With all that scenery to serve as inspiration, Beaton’s agent asked her to come up with a detective series set there. It would have been easy for Beaton to clone Hamish and plop him down in the Cotswolds. Instead, she came up with Agatha Raisin, a prickly, pushy snoop who, at 53, is about to retire from her public relations job in London to reinvent herself in the countryside.
Female characters who dominated the genre at the time tended to be in their early to mid-30s, establishing their careers and dealing with their fears of commitment. Agatha had done all that. She retired at the height of her career, and, as good as she was at public relations, she was a bumbling sleuth in the early books. Divorced, her ex-husband wouldn’t appear in the series until the fifth novel. Still, Agatha has several close, though not always successful, relationships with men. Her obsessiveness, her completely politically incorrect approach to life and her rudeness belied a vulnerability that connected with readers. Agatha may act as if she thinks she’s a little more sophisticated than her neighbors, but in truth she desperately wants to be accepted by the villagers. The child of alcoholic parents, Agatha is a self-made woman.
“I wanted to create someone you might not like but who you wanted to win out in the end,” she said.
As in the Hamish novels, Agatha’s Cotswolds are as much of a character as the villagers.
“The Cotswolds are very foggy and misty and you think if you could see beyond that (hill) you know there is a perfectly good party going on to which you have not been invited,” said Beaton.
As with the launch of Hamish, Beaton used her own experiences to form the plot of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, the series’ 1993 debut. The headmaster at the school Beaton’s son attended asked if she would contribute some of her “splendid home baking” for a fundraiser the academy was holding. Beaton didn’t want to let her son down—and she didn’t want to admit that baking just wasn’t one of her priorities. So she purchased a couple of storebought quiches, prettied them up and passed them off as her own. “They sold for 30 pence a slice. They were a great success,” she said.
In real life, Beaton’s “homemade” quiche helped raise some money for the Vietnamese boat people who the school was sponsoring; in Agatha’s world that store-bought quiche poisoned a judge.
“Fifty can be a bad time for a woman because she’s not yet at menopause, but everything is starting to go south in the body. The lines suddenly seem to spring up overnight and the mustache starts to grow, you know. And the waistline thickens all by itself. That makes Agatha more vulnerable because [aging] is something women approach differently, but they have to come to terms with it.”
“My customers love Agatha Raisin,” said Joanne Sinchuk, owner of Murder on the Beach bookstore in Delray Beach. “They love her spunk. M.C. Beaton offers everything my customers like—a British series set in modern times and a cozy.”
Beaton said she didn’t plan for her two lead characters to be so different. “They just came out that way,” she said.
“Hamish is based on my knowledge of people in the Highlands. Agatha is based on my knowledge of myself.”
Although Beaton’s series are quite different, both examine life in a British village. The village mystery endures, said Beaton, because you have “a small cast of characters in one place and in this world, justice will be done. It’s about friends and neighbors. George Orwell said that middle class crimes are the ones people remember. There are plenty of murders that are a smash on the head or a slash in the gut. But the ones that fascinate are the ones that sort of lift the veil of respectability.”
“Village mysteries also offer readers an escape. Again, in an increasingly violent world, you know that justice will be done here. And that escape is highly entertaining. I always just wanted to be an entertainer. And I think I am an entertainer. I am certainly not literary,” she said with a laugh.
The village mysteries also allow Beaton to share her sharp British sense of humor. British humor has more irony, she says; her humor comes from “cynicism.”
“What makes me laugh is the ridiculous, the unexpected, the quirky.”
And gossip, which shows up in many of her novels and often helps her lead characters uncover the mystery.
“I quite like gossip,” she said with an almost impish smile and a little shrug. “I like finding out about people. Of course, I mean that in a good way.”
The Hamish MacBeth novels were made into a popular British series that lasted for three seasons, from 1995-1997, starring Robert Carlyle. Beaton is not particularly a fan of the series, which she says are nothing like the novels.
“The scenery is good,” she said. “The dog is good.” But that’s pretty much all she has to say on the subject, except: “Do you know they even changed the dog’s name from Towser to Wee Jock?”
Beaton much prefers the radio dramatizations of 12 Agatha novels that have been broadcast for BBC Radio 4 since October 2005. A television production company is now interested in the Agatha novels, but Beaton says only, “We’ll see. We’ll look at that contract very carefully.”
Beaton and her husband share their time between “a very small” cottage in the Cotswolds and a Paris apartment that they rent (“We couldn’t afford to buy there.”) The cottage was built in 1807 (“quite new for around here”) and features a long garden that her husband tends. “I write and read or sit and stare at the wall. If it weren’t for my husband handling all the accounts taxes and so on, I would just give up.”
The couple has one child, a son, Charles, 35, a computer programmer who is unmarried. “I’m a granna-be.”
Juggling the two series does take its toll. Beaton had begun an Edwardian mystery series featuring Lady Rose Summer, an independent 19-year-old. After four novels, Beaton decided to stop because of time constraints. Meanwhile, she plans to write more Hamish or Agatha novels.
“I am a writer,” she said. “That’s what I do. It’s not like you like it—maybe there’s one day out of [writing] each book that’s good. But it’s something you have to do. It’s something you cannot not do.”
Despite the scores of novels she has written, Beaton said she doesn’t know where her characters are going next.
“They are just there when I start writing. It’s a great mistake to fall in love with your characters. The minute you do you forget about the reader. The character must not just appeal to you but to the reader. The reader must be as interested in them as you are.
“I don’t know where either of them is going until starting writing. I actually don’t. If I knew, I think that would break the spirit of the story.”
M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin novels make evocative use of the charming English Cotswolds. Shown here is the
village of Bibury. Photo: David Iliff
An M.C. Beaton Reading List
THE HAMISH MACBETH MYSTERIES
Death of a Gossip, 1985
Death of a Cad, 1987
Death of an Outsider, 1988
Death of a Perfect Wife, 1989
Death of a Hussy, 1990
Death of a Snob, 1991
Death of a Prankster, 1992
Death of a Glutton, 1993
Death of a Travelling Man, 1993
Death of a Charming Man, 1994
Death of a Nag, 1995
Death of a Macho Man, 1996
Death of a Dentist, 1997
Death of a Scriptwriter, 1998
Death of an Addict, 1999
A Highland Christmas, 1999
Death of a Dustman, 2001
Death of a Celebrity, 2002
Death of a Village, 2003
Death of a Poison Pen, 2004
Death of a Bore, 2005
Death of a Dreamer, 2006
Death of a Maid, 2007
Death of a Gentle Lady, 2008
Death of a Witch, 2009
Death of a Valentine, 2010
Death of a Chimney Sweep, 2011
THE AGATHA RAISIN MYSTERIES
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, 1992*
Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet, 1993
Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener, 1994
Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley, 1995
Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage, 1996
Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist, 1997
Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death, 1998
Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, 1999
Agatha Raisin and the Witch of Wyckhadden, 1999
Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam, 2000
Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell, 2001
Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came, 2002
Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate, 2003
Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House, 2003
The Deadly Dance, 2004
The Perfect Paragon, 2005
Love, Lies and Liquor, 2006
Kissing Christmas Goodbye, 2007
A Spoonful of Poison, 2008
There Goes the Bride, 2009
Busy Body, 2010
*In the US, St. Martin’s Press has reissued the first four Agatha Raisin books with abbreviated titles, e.g., The Quiche of Death.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #98.