The Wit & Wisdom of M.C. Beaton

  • The Wit & Wisdom of M.C. Beaton
  • The Wit & Wisdom of M.C. Beaton
  • The Wit & Wisdom of M.C. Beaton

Remembering the creator of detectives Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth

A prolific writer who brought pleasure to millions of adoring readers, Marion Chesney (best known by her pen name, M.C. Beaton) was a well-loved figure in the Cotswold community. 

Over 21 million copies of her books have been sold, and she is frequently named the best-borrowed author from UK libraries. 

The Cotswold Homes team remembers her as a witty and generous interviewee, filled with hair-raising anecdotes about her time as a crime reporter in the Glasgow slums and wry observations about the world of publishing. 

Born in Balornock, Glasgow, Chesney began her working life as a fiction buyer for John Smith & Son, the oldest bookshop in the city, before joining the Scottish Daily Mail as a theatre critic. Later, she worked as crime reporter for the Scottish Daily Express. 

Her years as a Fleet Street reporter in the 1960s saw her covering the Profumo affair and the antics of British fascist Oswald Mosley. She then moved to America with her husband, journalist Harry Scott Gibbons, where she began her career as a prolific writer of fiction. She wrote over 160 romance novels under a variety of pen names, including Anne Fairfax and Jennie Tremaine. 

Marion and her family returned to England and made a home in the Cotswolds, where she turned her hand to crime writing – to great success. Famously, she detested being described as a writer of cosy crime fiction and disliked the BBC adaptation of her Hamish Macbeth series. Agatha Raisin was later adapted for television by Sky TV  a third series was commissioned in 2019. 

In celebration of Marions life and literary achievements, were publishing some excerpts from our favourite interviews with the author. 

M.C Beaton on her childhood: 

My mother was very Highlands. She used to put a saucer of milk out for the fairies  though the hedgehogs would drink it, shed think it was the fairies. Very superstitious. Shed 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 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 Id died and gone to heaven. There, the newspapers were all nice to one another. 

On moving to the Cotswolds: 

 I remember looking at all these hills through the fog and thinking that there was a probably a splendid party going on over on the other side, to which I hadnt been invited. And then, when the time came to go back up to London, I suddenly felt as though I no longer belonged: I couldnt wait to get on the train [back to the Cotswolds]. Its beautiful everywhere you look its like driving through a series of English landscape paintings. 

On writing over 160 books: 

I think theres more than that, but I forget how many. Now Im 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 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 cant write beyond your capabilities you cant pretend at another kind of writing. 

I had a friend in Paris who said: Youve got a very good literary background  why dont you try writing something different. He meant better. And I said: You dont get it. This might be very light and frivolous and easy to read but Im writing to my very best  really, my very best. 

Funnily enough, you cant 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. 

Im often damned as being cosy. I dont mind so long as people still like [the books], but its a bit patronising. It reminds me of Terry Pratchetts 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 dont read your books but my gardeners 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 [is] a frighteningly intelligent woman. And theres 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 Stevensons 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 dont 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 husbandYou dont 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 hasnt got one. They said: He isnt married. I said: You dont get married until youre about 40 in the Highlands. And Robert Carlyle insisted that Hamish smoke pot  he said if the pot smoking was taken out then he would leave the series. 

Agathas problems are human. She drinks a bit  well, socially, she drinks a lot  but shes not an alcoholic! 

On the process of writing: 

Somebody asked me once: How do you target your readers? You cant target them. If you start targeting them, youre 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 Youre talking to the reader. Youve got to grab their attention. You dont 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. 

Find out more about M.C. Beaton at www.mcbeaton.com