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A fond farewell to M C Beaton, by Barry Forshaw

Barry Forshaw, author of Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, on MC Beaton (aka Marion Chesney), the creator of Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth, who has died at 83.

Although many crime novels fit more or less comfortably into a clearly defined category – private eye, police procedural or whatever – the genre has many books which resist easy characterisation. There are the protagonists from other professions: journalists, art experts, jockeys, priests, modern Robin Hoods… Among such non-police types such as Jane Marple, Gervase Fen, Albert Campion and Nigel Strangeways, MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin (with a PR background), enjoyed great success (not to mention a popular TV adaptation, despite a casting choice that moved decisively from Beaton’s concept).

A key novel is Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (2010), in which Beaton’s much-loved character abandons her PR company despite the fact that it’s doing well, leaves London and heads for what she hopes will be a pleasurable early retirement in the tranquil village of Carsely. She enters a local baking contest and is convinced that her quiche will see off all opposition – until the judge who has disqualified her entry suddenly dies. Needless to say, it transpires that Agatha’s quiche has been poisoned. With its spikey, less-than-likeable central character and sardonic wit, Beaton’s recipe for success was clearly laid out in this enjoyable offering – possibly the best entry point for the long-running (if unthreatening) series.

Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, set in Sutherland, northern Scotland and also televised, was another favourite with both readers and viewers. While the BBC Scotland production – three series in the 1990s, starring Robert Carlyle – was only very loosely based on the books, again to the author’s displeasure, the episodes attracted readers to her 35 novels and many of the early titles were reprinted as a result. The first to be published was Death of a Gossip in 1985 and the last, Death of an Honest Man, in 2018.

MC Beaton was a long-time member of the CWA and will be missed.