WITH more than 100 novels to her name – including the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series – MC Beaton is a one woman crime wave
You might not be that familiar with the names of the writers Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, Helen Crampton, Charlotte Ward or Sarah Chester, but what about MC Beaton, or Marion Chesney? Still not ringing a bell? If we said Hamish Macbeth or Agatha Raisin? We’re on more familiar territory now. The woman behind the books, MC Beaton, is the most borrowed adult author from UK libraries, with 15 million copies sold and the TV series they inspired attracting huge viewing audiences, the latest being Ashley Jensen’s outing on Sky 1 on Boxing Day.
“I started off using my maiden name Marion McChesney,” says Beaton, “and before the first book was even printed I got an offer to do Edwardian romances so I was Jennie Tremaine, then another publisher wanted 18th century blockbusters, so that was another name, then when it came to the detective stories they wanted something Scottish without a mac, so I took the name Beaton after one of Mary, Queen of Scots’ maids,” she says.
At 79, the sprightly Beaton has no intention of slowing down and this week publishes the latest Hamish Macbeth title, bringing the total up to 30. Meanwhile, her Agatha Raisin series isn’t lagging far behind the Highland bobby, with the PR turned amateur sleuth amassing a body count of 25 books. Then there are around 100 Regency romances, and a series of Edwardian mysteries, all penned by the Glasgow-born dynamo who describes her success as “mind-blowing”.
‘Being a thriller writer, if someone gets up your nose you can kill them’
Dividing her time between the Cotswolds, where she lives in a village very much like Agatha Raisin, and a flat in Paris, Beaton has written so many books she’s lost count, after starting her career while she was at home looking after her son Charlie.
Born in Balornock, Beaton always loved books and when she left school was delighted to land a job in John Smith & Sons booksellers.
“My parents had decided I was never going to come to anything, and I would stay at home and look after them, but I thought, ‘I’ll show you’. I had an excellent English teacher who got me the job at John Smith’s when bookselling was regarded as a profession. We were expected to know all the writers; Muriel Spark, Ian Fleming, Tolkien, all sorts of marvellous writers. None of them talked about writing literature. They were story-tellers.”
For Beaton writing is about telling a story, with great characters and a liberal dash of dark humour, to fill the space between Mills & Boon and the Pulitzer prize.
“I’m more entertainer than writer. The minute you start elevating yourself you get a mental block.”
Working in John Smith’s led Beaton to a job in journalism after a chance meeting in a tea room.
“The features editor of the Scottish Daily Mail sat at my table and said she had no-one to review a panto. I said I would do it. She asked if I’d ever had anything published so I lied and said yes, in Punch. The review was only 50 words and had to mention the editor’s nephew, so I did that and began to do their theatre reviews: the Glasgow Empire, where they threw rivets if they didn’t like the act – Des O’Connor fainted with fright – The Alhambra, the Citizens’, Tommy Cooper, Shirley Bassey, Cliff Richard, The Bluebell Girls, Strindberg’s violin concerto, vaudeville. It was wonderful.”
A stint as fashion editor at Scottish Field led on to the Scottish Daily Express, where as crime reporter she covered the grittier side of Glasgow in the days of the razor gangs, before moving to the Express in London.
“It was hard work, but when I walked down Fleet Street and heard the printing presses start up at night, and saw the dome of St Paul’s reflected in the Thames, I thought I had arrived.”
Along with meeting the Beatles, doorstepping John Profumo at the height of the 1963 call girl scandal, Beaton also met her husband, Harry Scott Gibbons, the Express’s Middle East correspondent.
‘We were also both stubborn and pig-headed and had a sense of humour’
“He was from Fife. His father was a miner, mine was a coal merchant, so we had coal in common. We were also both stubborn and pig-headed and had a sense of humour.”
A move to the US saw the pair working in a greasy spoon before landing jobs in New York at Rupert Murdoch’s newly-launched the Star. With a baby son to care for, Beaton left and turned to writing Regency romances after Harry challenged her to stop complaining about the inaccuracies in the ones she was reading, and write her own.
Ironically, while she was immersed in a genteel fictional world of “Lord gets girl, Lord loses girl, Lord gets girl again”, Beaton and her family were living in Brooklyn in the heart of Mafia territory.
“Our neighbourhood was like the film Donnie Brasco. There was The Dwarf, the Fat Man, Goldie and Littly Nicky, who gave my son lifts to school. We kept friendly banter going and they left the locals alone. I knew where the drugs and guns were, but with a young son you keep quiet.”
After 100 books set in the Regency period, the first Hamish Macbeth book was born when Beaton and her husband holidayed in Scotland.
“We were standing looking at a salmon pool, but all I could think of was a body rolling into it. When I went back to New York my agent said, who’s your detective? I had no idea, I just said, Hamish Macbeth.”
Relocating back to Scotland with a move to Sutherland, Beaton was able to immerse herself in the world of Hamish Macbeth while Harry reared black sheep on their croft.
There’s a darker side to life that’s great for detective stories
Were there ever any real life murders in Sutherland or in her present abode in the sleepy Cotswolds?
“No, but there’s a darker side to life that’s great for detective stories. Harry’s lambs took the prize at Lairg sheep sales so someone cut the fences and put a white ram in. Then there was a hit and run in Wick and someone reported it was me. I had been into Tain shopping so my movements were all documented, but I was taken aback by the spite.”
As well as dark humour and attention to detail, Beaton places great emphasis on the importance of her central characters and wasn’t entirely happy with the 1990s Hamish Macbeth TV series.
“I didn’t enjoy it. They despised the books and didn’t make much bones about letting me know. Robert Carlyle was certainly nothing like my Hamish Macbeth. They said they had to bring out his dark side, explain why he wasn’t married, make him smoke pot. I said he didn’t have a dark side, and he wasn’t married because he was a Highlander; it’s not unusual.”
But when you’re a writer of murder mysteries, revenge is easy to execute.
“I wrote Death of a Scriptwriter to get my own back. The good thing about being a detective writer is if someone gets up your nose you can kill them,” she says.
If Beaton had quibbles about Robert Carlyle as her six foot four Hamish, she had no qualms about Ashley Jensen’s youthful, slender, blonde turn as the fiftysomething, dark-haired, stocky Agatha Raisin.
“She carried it off beautifully,” says Beaton. “The show had the spirit of the book and they kept to the plot. Agatha is rude and pushy, but in the end you like her, a bit like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.”
With a deadline of mid March for the next Hamish Macbeth, Beaton is racing to finish her latest murder mystery.
“It gets more difficult because God forbid the reader should think you are just fobbing them off. But I’m never short of ideas. I would stop if the readers got tired.”
Put her feet up and enjoy a rest?
“No! I’d write something else.”
• Death of a Liar, A Hamish Macbeth Murder Mystery by MC Beaton is published in hardback by Constable at £18.99; Death of a Policeman, A Hamish Macbeth Murder Mystery, £7.99, is out on the same day; Agatha Raisin and the Blood of an Englishman, £5.99, is out in April.