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 ...'