Inside the mystery-spinning mind of M.C. Beaton

  • MC Beaton

The Blockley-based bestselling author and creator of Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth on Star Wars, Scandi noir and her time as a crime reporter in Glasgow.

On Writing 160+ Books:

‘I think there’s more than that, but I forget how many. Now I’m pushing eighty, I really would like to write just one book a year. That would be luxury…Or would it? Would I just fart around and do it at the last minute?’

On the Pleasures of Escapism:

‘There seems to be something that’s gone missing in entertainment.  For example, they’re bringing out the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and there are scenes of sex and drugs…

‘Don’t they realise the charm of Christie is the escape to a safer world with the squire and the tennis courts and the afternoon tea? A golden world that only ever existed for the privileged few – and yet it brings the fascination of safety, and of justice being done. The minute you begin to let in modern themes, the escape goes out of the window.

‘You see in the latest Star Wars, they have gone back to the original themes – it’s just a marvellous escape. We lived in America when they were showing the very first one, and at the end they all stood up and started clapping.’

On Being a Writer:

‘I think of myself more of an escape artist than a writer. The moment people hear the word writer, they start thinking of the Booker Prize and the literary world and the Great Novel. Well, you can’t write beyond your capabilities…you can’t pretend at another kind of writing.

I had a friend in Paris who said: “You’ve got a very good literary background – why don’t you try writing something different”…He meant better. And I said: “You don’t get it. This might be very light and frivolous and easy to read but I’m writing to my very best – really, my very best.”

‘Funnily enough, you can’t write in another genre just because it happens to be popular, or you become childish. I once tried to write a Scottish historical. It was dreadful.

‘I’m often damned as being cosy. I don’t mind so long as people still like [the books], but it’s a bit patronising. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s famous remark, when he was asked to speak at festivals, in the way I am, that there often seems to be a subtext that says “of course I don’t read your books but my gardener’s son simply adores them,” and you try not to spit on the stage!’

On Scottish Writers:

‘Of course, sex and drugs does have its place. The black humour of the sort that you get from Stuart McBride is very funny, Val McDermid – a frighteningly intelligent woman. And there’s Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin…so many great writers from Scotland [laughs]. Of course, a lot of us started with our admiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. What a wonderful, exciting piece of writing.’

On Flawed Detectives:

‘The actress who plays Saga in The Bridge is brilliant – a sort of Aspergers James Bond, almost invulnerable…But it got soppy! You see her background! I don’t want to see her background – I loved Columbo because you never saw Mrs Columbo. And Cagney and Lacey died a bit over a drunken father and a stupid unemployed husband…You don’t want too much of their private lives.

‘The idiots who were filming my Hamish Macbeth – well, in my opinion they were idiots – they said “We must bring out his dark side.” To which I said: “He hasn’t got one.” They said: “He isn’t married.” I said: “You don’t get married until you’re about 40 in the Highlands.” And Robert Carlisle insisted that Hamish smoke pot – he said if the pot smoking was taken out then he would leave the series.

‘Agatha’s problems are human. She drinks a bit – well, socially, she drinks a lot - but she’s not an alcoholic!’

On the Agatha Raisin Television Series:

‘At first I didn’t care – I thought oh, here we go again. But they have been marvellous. Now, Ashley Jensen may not look like Agatha, but my God, she acts it. And Matt McCooey, who plays Bill Wong…he’s gorgeous. I’m very lucky with it.

‘The only thing is the manic depressive vicar. The minute scriptwriters see vicars they think of knickers, paedophilia…so this one’s manic depressive. But you see it’s very easy to write bad people – and much more difficult to write good ones.

‘Goodness is very attractive. People think the dark side can attract, well – so does the good, because it can make you feel very safe. And it’s very rare.

On the Process of Writing:

‘Somebody asked me once: how do you target your readers? You can’t target them. If you start targeting them you’re dead. Sit down, begin at the beginning and go on to the end.

‘You have to write what you enjoy. The brain is like a computer: you can only get out what you put in. The essence of storytelling is often forgotten…You’re talking to the reader. You’ve got to grab their attention. You don’t want them to get bored.

‘Readers have got to be amused, got to be taken out of themselves. I think for me a detective story is a bit of P.G. Wodehouse, a bit of romance and a bit of a crossword puzzle.’

On Her Background:

‘My mother was very Highlands. She used to put a saucer of milk out for the fairies – though the hedgehogs would drink it, she’d think it was the fairies. Very superstitious. She’d had a very hard life, as well. She would play piano for the silent movies. She worked in a music shop in Glasgow, and if you wanted to know the latest musical from London, a girl like my mother would sit down and play the whole thing for you. She was very talented in that way, but she was a difficult person.

‘I lived a lot in libraries. To me, they were palaces of dreams. I would look around the shelves and dream of one day being a published author. I dreamed I would have a publisher in Belgravia…when Constable & Robinson took me over they had a publishing house in Belgravia, and it was Georgian…!’

On Her Time as a Crime Reporter:

‘The only time I ever got punched was by a Daily Mail photographer, because I was keeping crime witnesses away from the papers. It was sordid, ghastly – the poverty, dear God. The lice, the smell, the razor gangs…the axemen even had their own pub to disassociate from the lower class, the razor gangs. When I got a transfer to London I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. There, the newspapers were all nice to one another.’

M.C. Beaton’s books have sold over 15 million copies worldwide and she is the No. 1 most borrowed UK adult author in libraries. Her work has been translated into 15 languages and published in 19 countries.

Following Sky’s 2014 adaptation of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, a new series will return for 8 stand-alone stories based on the books and stories of M.C. Beaton this spring. ‘Death of a Nurse’, the latest in the Hamish Macbeth series, will be published by Constable in hardback and eBook on Tuesday 23rd February 2016, both priced £14.99.