MC Beaton: Mastermind of a Cotswold crimewave

MC Beaton discusses with James Kidd the social deprivation and personal tragedy that inform her cosy English mystery novels

Last year, the best-selling crime writer M C Beaton turned 75. If the landmark passed with less fanfare than it deserved, the fault was partly hers. It seems that Marion Beaton, the creator of Hamish Macbeth, the doyenne of the Cosy Mystery and author of more than 160 novels, had been lying about her age for so long that she had lost track of her actual birthday.

"I was the only person who didn't know how old I was. I kept hacking years off. If I was still lying today, I'd say I was 69. But as a friend of mine says, 'We're all on Wikipedia now.'"

Fortunately, 2012 brings another anniversary. Agatha Raisin, Beaton's "other" chart-topping crime fighter, is 20 years old. Agatha is celebrating with a vivacious new adventure, Hiss and Hers, that finds her, quite literally, in rude health: lusting after the local gardener (who is later murdered), berating the ghosts of husbands and boyfriends past, smoking and drinking more than is good for her and, of course, solving a mystery in the deceptively idyllic Cotswolds village of Carsley.

Beaton marks the occasion by arranging to talk over lunch in Broadway, a real-life Cotswolds village that could be a dead ringer for Raisin's stomping ground. The eerie sense of meeting Beaton in her fictional universe is enhanced by the arrival of an ambulance tending to a poorly diner. Beaton looks over with genuine concern, and possibly professional interest. Clearly something of a local celebrity, she is twice approached by fans who announce how much they admire her work in general, and Agatha in particular.

"She just crops up, like an alter ego," Beaton tells me, tucking into a starter of crab. "Tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside. Agatha says all the things I wish I could say." Such as, I ask? "It's very fashionable to despise Barry Manilow," Beaton says conspiratorially in her Scottish brogue. But what's wrong with Barry Manilow? "That's what Agatha wants to know. Also, a lot of my contemporaries who write detective stories have some crack about country and western music. But I like country and western music. Who can resist titles like 'There's a Splinter in My Arse as I Slide Down the Banister of Life'?"

Despite avowals to the contrary, the chatty and eminently quotable Beaton clearly has more in common with her heroine than a passing love of bawdy country and western ditties. Agatha's endearing combination of vanity, toughness and thinly veiled emotional fragility can all be glimpsed when Beaton mentions her recent success: she famously outsold J K Rowling at the height of Pottermania on abebooks.com, the online second-hand book dealer.

"I wish it had all happened earlier," Beaton says, a little ruefully. "Since all this publicity blew up, I had cancer in 2001 and got a breast lopped off. Then in 2006 I had a hip replaced and can't wear heels. Now I'm presenting this award for the Golden Daggers. I went to the frock shop in Stow and said, 'You've got yourself a challenge!'"

Beaton sounds especially Raisin-esque when complaining about the nannyish aspects of modern life (smoking bans; rude drivers) or when she reminisces about a murder case from her days as a crime reporter in Glasgow. She chuckles at the recollection of a young woman who claimed to have accidentally stabbed her boyfriend to death with a breadknife – apparently, his mother was accidentally tied to a chair in another room.But she shudders when recalling that female journalists in the 1960s were required to wear high heels, Agatha's favoured footwear. And unlike her perpetually single heroine, Beaton has been happily married for 43 years. The secret to romantic longevity? "My husband is my best friend."

It's hard to know whether Agatha would share Beaton's distaste for Fifty Shades of Grey, which she claims to have purchased by mistake. "I thought it was P D James. I didn't have my glasses on. I was reading it in the hairdressers and became Mrs Outraged of Tunbridge Wells. I chucked it in the bin after chapter two. The writing was so very bad. It's the Marquis de Sade meets Mills and Boon."

Beaton is well qualified to comment. After a successful career in journalism (first in her hometown of Glasgow, later on Fleet Street and finally in New York), her first literary efforts were a series of romances set in the Regency period. A chance encounter in Greenwich Village with the mystery writer Lawrence Block set her on the path to crime. Beaton had already witnessed the consequences of violence first-hand, while covering the crime beat in Glasgow. "They had the worst slums in western Europe. The tenements were still gas lit. Broken stair lavatories. Mice. Degradation. The razor gangs were on the rampage. There were girl gangs with sharpened steel combs. I just wanted to get out. It was so brutal."

The theme of evading pain and suffering runs throughout Beaton's conversation. She has no fear of death, but acknowledges that in recent years it has dogged both her and her loved ones: her brother died last year, her sister in January. "There are times in everybody's life when they just want to walk out. I mean, I wouldn't mind committing suicide if I could come back two days later." She laughs quietly. "Just to take time out: 'Stop the world, I want to get off.'"

Beaton counterbalances this unnerving expression of escape with her enduring love of literature: she names Muriel Spark, Ian Fleming and Rosamund Lehman as particular favourites. And while the rigour of writing can be a burden, the creation of her good-humoured fictional worlds clearly gives immense pleasure. Her dearest wish is that this transmits itself to her readers: "I never wanted to be a literary writer. I wanted to be an entertainer. All I wanted was to give what a lot of writers had given me: a good time on a bad day."

Hiss and Hers By M C Beaton, Constable £18.99

'He switched to a showing of CSI Miami. "I've had enough of crime for one day," complained Agatha. "But this is fictional crime," protested Charles. "Sometimes," said Agatha, "when things are bad, I wish I could just walk right into the television screen and take time off from reality. I don't mean be part of the plot, but just stand somewhere sunny and watch them filming ...'

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015
    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall