Sad news to start the New Year with the passing of MC Beaton. The author was eighty-three and will be much missed by all of us.
Here’s our interview with her from 2017, when we caught up about a new Agatha Raisin mystery.
Real name Marion Chesney, MC Beaton has sold over 20 million books around the world, including a large number of romantic fiction novels, mostly written before she created her two most famous characters, Hamish McBeth and Agatha Raisin.
A career in crime fiction seemed like a natural fit for a woman who covered crime for the Daily Express in Scotland early in her writing career. Did Marion already have an inkling that she might write about it?
“No, no, no – the crime I write about has got nothing to do with reality. Real crime was grim in Glasgow then, it was a very violent city.
“I used to read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers – the classics – because they were an escape in the library. Justice was done, there were no lice-ridden tenements. When you’ve got enough of reality in your real life you dream about some escape from it.
“I never really thought of detective stories until I’d written over a hundred regency romances. I thought if I don’t get out of 1811 to 1820, I’ll go stark raving bonkers!
“I’d read nothing but detective stories and the mind’s like a computer – you can only get out what you put in.
Don’t Patronise Agatha Christie
“When I was living in the Sutherland wilderness, I thought it would make a good setting for a detective story and that was how it started.
“At that time there was nothing between Mills and Boon and the Booker Prize. I wanted a book you give to someone on a wet day who was having a bad time.”
People have tried to pigeonhole Marion’s work as “cosy crime”, and I’d heard that she preferred the term “comfy crime.” Was this true?
“Not really, but I resented the ‘cosy crime’. No-one would have dreamt of saying to Agatha Christie ‘Oh, you’re a cosy crime writer’! Do you know what I mean? It’s patronising.”
Marion’s exhausted her desire to write Regency romances, as the details of the research were so demanding. Even down to details like whether a visiting gentleman took his hat off or not – if you did, it meant you intended on staying for at least ten minutes.
Unfashionable relatives from the country had to be educated in sophisticated city ways in special classes, and there was so much protocol that it made getting it right in the writing a nightmare.
As a result, Marion decided to fulfill the dream of a Sutherland mystery, and Hamish Macbeth was born.
Is there a little of Marion in her characters?
“Not in Hamish but in Agatha. You see, she’s not politically correct and she sometimes says things I would like to say!
“I remember when we could all smoke in restaurants and my printer friend . . . Well, on each table was a large glass ashtray so they lit up and the people behind started to cough so he called over the Maitre D’ and said, ‘Could you remove these people they’re bothering us!’
“Agatha’s a bit like that. She wears fur coats and eats McDonalds!”
A Crime Writer Is A Happy Writer
Does Marion also enjoy being able to exorcise some demons by writing people into her stories and bumping them off?
“Oh, yes! You know, I used to go to romance writers’ conventions and it can get quite competitive and vicious. You should go to a crime writers’ convention – it’s quite cosy because I think we all get our spite out in our writing.”
Full of praise for Val McDiarmid and Stuart McBride, Marion openly admits that gatherings of writers like “Bloody Scotland” (her favourite), are a lovely chance to meet people in an otherwise quite isolating job.
An Incredible Editor
Of course, one other vital relationship in her life is her long-standing partnership with Hope Dellon, her Editor.
“She’s incredible. And she always says ‘I don’t keep an unpublished manuscript in my bottom drawer’, meaning she’s an Editor pure and simple.
“If she tells you to change something it changes because she’s always spot on.”
Hope leaves the content to Marion entirely, as you might expect for someone so commercially successful. But despite her level of her fame, Marion’s still always thinking of the reader, and what reaction she wants to get from them. What kind of thing would she like a reader to say about her work?
“Someone who says ‘You helped me through a bad time’ because that’s what I get out of books, I still get out of books now.”
And readers aside, do any of Marion’s fellow Cotswold residents react to the books? Does she feature any of them in the books?
“No, nobody I know at all is in the books. Bits of people appear. I was in Evesham and it was pouring wet once. OK, I was parked on a yellow line but I just nipped into the shop, when I came out there was this woman with a plastic thing over her head and she glares at me and says, ‘Look where that car’s parked!’.
“I got in and she starts hammering the window and shouting at me. I just turned up the radio and drove off! That happens in on of the books, and Agatha just says ‘Why aren’t you at home having a cup of tea? Why are you out abusing motorists?’”
Despite perhaps being notorious in the area for her parking, Marion manages to stay under the radar. She credits this to the neighbour who does all her publicity shots, a wedding photographer, who always manages to make her “look thirty years younger. She’s a genius!”
“The thing about writers is that it might get you a table at The Ivy but nobody’ll recognise you! I think they recognise people like Val McDermid, but the rest of us are pretty anonymous.”
Which Marion knows she prefers from moments of being recognised.
“I came out once and there were three teenagers from Germany and somehow they’d managed to get my address – I had a stinking cold, I wasn’t wearing make-up, I looked like a ratbag!
“‘Can we have a photo with you’, they said. You smile but what you really want to do is say, ‘No! Go away!’”
“I Can’t Do Anything Else!”
And do you still enjoy the whole writing process?
“It’s mixed, but I can’t do anything else!
“You get about one or two days out of each book where everything goes great.
“Then you get days where you think you can’t do this but you just get on and do it. It’s a job – the minute you begin to think of yourself as a “writer”, that’s the first road down to mental block! It’s just a job like a carpenter or plumber.
“Ruth Rendell had it right. When you start writing, it’s like first running a four minute mile. It’s hard, but the next one is quicker. People think it’s easy to write because it’s easy to read but it’s actually much more difficult.”
Click here to read our interview with another dear departed friend of the “Friend”, Rosamunde Pilcher.