Obituary: MC Beaton, author creator of Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin

MC Beaton (Marion Chesney), novelist. Born: 10 June, 1936, in Glasgow. Died 30 December, 2019, aged 83.

Marion Chesney (M C Beaton) on the set of Agatha Raisin with Ashley Jensen and Matt McCooey (Picture: MC Beaton/Twitter)

Born in a working-class part of ­Glasgow to parents who expected her to achieve precisely nothing, by her early 20s Marion Chesney was ­running the fiction department in a big bookshop and reviewing theatre for the ­Daily Mail.

She graduated from theatre reviews to the macho world of crime reporting and went on to a career in Fleet Street. But in her 30s she was working as a waitress in the United States.

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In her 40s she began writing period romances while bringing up a son, but even though she was churning out books at the rate of one every two months she was earning only enough to get by.

Then, in her 70s she became fabulously successful, popular and rich, even though she was still not exactly famous, not as Marion Chesney, nor even under her pen name of MC Beaton.

MC Beaton was the name under which she created Hamish Macbeth, which was picked up for the BBC’s prime Sunday night slot with Robert Carlyle as the lazy Highland policeman of the title.

She used the same pen name for novels featuring Agatha Raisin, who sells her PR ­agency in London and moves to the Cotswolds, only to ­discover it in the grip of a crime wave. More recently Agatha Raisin was also picked up for television, with Ashley Jensen in the role.

The critics ignored ­Beaton, even as she found a huge ­audience for her work. She sold more than 20 million books worldwide and was the most borrowed British adult fiction author in libraries in recent years.

“I’m more entertainer than writer,” Beaton said in an interview with The Scotsman a few years ago. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death is far removed from grittier and more literary crime writers such as Raymond Chandler and Ruth Rendell and certainly far distant from the “murders, razor gangs and middle-aged prostitutes” on which she reported while working in Glasgow as a crime reporter on the Daily Express.

Beaton liked the television version of Agatha Raisin, but was not so keen on TV’s take on Hamish Macbeth.

“It’s a bit like asking for ­Robert Redford and getting Danny DeVito,” she said. It is possibly the only time Robert Carlyle has been bracketed with Danny DeVito.

“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.”

She responded to the ­changes to Hamish Macbeth’s character on television with a new Macbeth novel called Death of a Scriptwriter.

But she hated when ­anyone called her stories “cosy”, though a murder mystery set at a Cotswolds quiche-making contest might seem to invite the description.

Beaton was born as Marion Chesney in Glasgow in 1936. She grew up in Balornock. “My parents had decided I was ­never going to come to anything, and I would stay at home and look after them,“ she said. “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.”

A chance meeting with a ­Daily Mail journalist in a ­Glasgow tearoom and a wee fib about her writing experience provided her with the chance to review a pantomime, which led to a regular sideline as a theatre reviewer.

She worked at Scottish Field, as a secretary and then in the advertising department and as fashion editor, and at the Express as a crime reporter in Glasgow and “chief woman reporter” in London.

She married fellow journalist Harry Scott Gibbons and they moved to the US, but struggled for a while before getting jobs in New York on Rupert Murdoch’s sensationalist tabloid The Star.

She left to look after their son Charles and published her first novel My Dear Duchess in 1979, under the name Ann Fairfax. It was the first of several pseudonyms and the first of many, many Regency romances. She was fascinated by history and was a fan of Georgette Heyer.

But after writing about 100 romances set in the early 19th Century, and achieving only limited success, she thought maybe she might try something different.

She got the idea for her first Hamish Macbeth novel after coming back to Scotland to go on a salmon fishing course. “There were only 11 of us… and there was this woman who was driving me mad,” she said. “She was very clumsy and very snobbish. She got fishing hooks embedded in people’s necks and didn’t apologise. So while everyone else was thinking about whether they would catch a big one today, I was thinking, wouldn’t her body look nice rolling down the salmon pools with a leader (part of a fishing line, including the lure) tied round her neck.”

Death of a Gossip, the first of 34 Hamish Macbeth novels, was published in 1985. The TV series began ten years ­later, with Carlyle as the constable who just wants a quiet life. It ran for three series.

While Beaton may have had reservations about the adaptation it certainly boosted ­interest in the original series of novels.

Beaton and her husband had moved back to Scotland, ­buying a croft in Sutherland. She had reservations about that too and called the local area “the sourest crofting community in Scotland”.

She said: “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.”

They relocated again to the Cotswolds, which became the setting for the Agatha Raisin novels, the first of which came out in 1992. Latterly Beaton also had a home in Paris.

She never retired and the latest Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin adventures are due out this year. Agatha ­Raisin is now in its third series on Sky.

Her husband died in 2016. She is survived by her son.

Brian Pendreigh