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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit