M. C. Beaton Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with M. C. Beaton. Beaton is a New York Times bestselling and internationally acclaimed author of the popular Hamish Macbeth mysteries and Agatha Raisin mysteries. She is also the author of more than one hundred romance titles and a series of romantic suspense novels, the Edwardian Mystery series. Beaton’s writing career spans over 35 years, before which she worked for years as a journalist. She was the International Guest of Honor in 2006 at Bouchercon, an annual convention of creators and devotees worldwide of mystery and detective fiction. [Hachette Audio and AudioGO are copublishing] the audio format of M. C. Beaton’s latest novel Death of a Policeman, available simultaneously with the hardcover book on February 25, 2014. Welcome M. C. Beaton.
M. C. BEATON: Welcome to you.
MH: May I call you Marion?
MB: Marion’s better, yes.
MH: Thank you so much for joining us today, and congratulations on the release of your latest Hamish Macbeth mystery, Death of a Policeman, which is book twenty-nine in the series. What can we expect for the sergeant in this novel?
MB: He’s got his old problem. The bane of his life, Detective Chief Inspector Blair, is still trying to winkle him out of that police station. He puts a policeman who owes him a favor onto following Hamish around to try and take photographs to prove he’s useless and lazy. The policeman’s found dead, killed with a shotgun, on a beach in the far north of Scotland where Hamish had sent him on a wild goose chase. So Hamish ends up the number-one suspect. Also, his love life is as complicated as ever.
MH: This character has proven to be an enduring detective in mystery fiction. How did you come about creating him and his world in Lochdubh?
MB: We were still living in Brooklyn, and we took a holiday in Scotland in Lochinver (my husband wanted to learn to fly-cast for salmon). There were eleven of us trapped out in this weird wilderness of Sutherland, the northernmost county in Scotland, and I read nothing but detective stories. I suddenly thought, what a wonderful setting for a detective story. I went back and told my editor, Hope Dellon, and she said, “Okay, who’s your detective?” And I hadn’t thought of one. I said, “The village policeman.” She asked, “What was his name?” And I said, “Hamish Macbeth.” So Hamish Macbeth was born on Fifth Avenue.
MH: He is described as being a bit lazy, maybe a reluctant detective, and certainly not one respected by the officials in the area. That sort of character, reluctantly getting involved in these sort of mysteries, was it in a deliberate response to some of the other, more proactive detectives out there?
MB: No, it just evolved. You can only write what you read, and what happened was I’d been writing regencies set in 1811 to 1820, and I thought if I don’t get out of the regency I will go mad. I noticed that people were beginning to read detective stories because there was nothing at that time between Harlequin and the Pulitzer prize, the sort of Daphne du Maurier thing you give to someone on a wet day who is having a bad time—for escape. So it just evolved. Someone said to me, “How did you target your market?” But you don’t. It just comes out in a way of what you might like to read yourself. Then there are two types of Highlanders. There’re the ones like Hamish—courteous, kind, absolutely no snobbery. There’s the other kind, the kind who hates anyone getting on. There was this man up at Leer, where we had a croft that had a trout farm. And they poisoned the water.
MH: Writing a mystery series, there’s so much structure in terms of the plotting. I’ve heard sometimes that people start with the crime and its solution, and work backwards. How do you approach writing your mysteries?
MB: You have to sell the plot in advance. Then, two years later, you take it out of the folder, and then you think, “Oh my god, what was I thinking of?” But you just begin at the beginning and go on to the end. I don’t do drafts. I have a basic skeleton of the plot, and then the whole thing with plots, subplots, and red headings that all evolves as it goes along.
MH: You’ve had such a prodigious output in your career over many decades, over a hundred romance novels, many mysteries as well. Not just the Hamish Macbeth but also the Agatha Raisin series. Describe your work schedule. You must be a marvelously disciplined writer to generate such a body of work.
MB: I had cancer, and I thought, “Oh good. I’ll be one of these people who leap out of bed in the morning and say, ‘Thank you God for another day on the planet.’” I regret to say, I wake up and think, “Oh God, I’ve got to write.” I crawl out of bed, get a cup of black coffee and my cigarettes, trudge upstairs to the office, sit down, and just go on. I found the best thing is don’t think. Anything I think of during the night is rubbish, and I never carry a notebook. I just think when I’m writing. There’s a sort of film running in your head, and you get a picture of the people—the smells are very evocative too.
MH: Making the transition to mysteries and the procedurals of crime detection, was that a difficult change? And what did you do to prepare for writing those books?
MB: No, I didn’t do anything at all. I just submitted the plot and then got down to it. Because I had years, and years, and years, and years of reading detective stories, particularly the between-the-walls ones, the Agatha Christie’s, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey. As they say, the brain’s like a computer: the ground was already preferred. I used to be a crime reporter when I was in Glasgow, before I moved to Fleet Street, although that doesn’t bear any relation to real life. Murders are usually nasty, brutish, and shock. I think of myself as an escape artist rather than a writer.
MH: Shifting slightly over, you created Hamish in his world in Scotland, and then you shifted to another marvelous character with Agatha Raisin. Describe why you decided to develop a different strain in a different setting in the Cotswolds. She seems so relevant to many of your readers, who I suspect are often women in much the same age range as Agatha is.
MB: What happened was we moved down to the Cotswolds because we thought the boy was going to go to Oxford, and actually he went to Cambridge. The Cotswolds is an area of the mid-lands—it’s a beauty spot—thatch cottages, golden stone, very pretty gardens and beautiful countryside. It was Hope Dellon again, at St. Martin’s Press, because she loved the Cotswolds, and she asked if she could have a Cotswold detective story. And Agatha Raisin just came out. The first Agatha Raisin book, The Quiche of Death, was based on something I did myself. When my son was at school in London, his house master said, “Could we have some of your splendid baking for a charity sale?” I wasn’t going to let my son down and say, “I can’t bake a thing.” So, I went to the local supermarket and I bought spinach quiche. I put on my own wrappings and homemade labels, and put it in as my own baking. Agatha does that at the village competition, the great quiche baking competition. The judge eats a slice, and drops dead of cowbane poisoning. Agatha’s exposed as a fraud, so she has to justify her existence by solving the crime. She says a lot of the things I’d like to say, but I’m much too polite.
MH: She’s such a wonderful character in that way. I love that you characterize her as the mouthpiece for your inner personality that wants to say the things you would like to say and can’t. You’ve been writing a long time—three decades now—and you started out in writing regency romances. What made you decide to get into writing in the first place?
MB: My son was very small. We were in Brooklyn, and I wanted to stay at home and take him to school because streets weren’t safe in New York at that time. I’d been reading the people who were trying to copy regency romances, and I said to my husband, “This is rubbish. The speech is wrong. The clothes were wrong. There’s no atmosphere of the regency.” And he said, “Well why don’t you write one?” He grabbed the first fifty pages. He was working on a newspaper, The Globe, and he showed it to a chap who wrote Gothics, and he recommended an agent, Barbara Lowenstein, who’s still my agent. She suggested a few changes, and I put it into them on a Friday. At that time, it was the first fifty pages of the plot. She phoned on Monday and said the book was sold. A month later, she phoned and asked, “Can you write Edwardians?” and I said yes, because I was thinking of P.G. Wodehouse. I became Jennie Tremaine because my first publisher, Fawcett, had my regencies under Marion Chesney. Then, Harper based Brenzovich the same year, they wanted two, and I became Ann Fairfax. I subsequently became Helen Crampton for the National American Library, and I became Charlotte Ward for a publisher whose name I forget. I really can’t remember all the names. I’m just M. C. Beaton now.
MH: The list of your pseudonyms would make a small-time larcenist ecstatic, in terms of the aliases. You mention your husband. I know you’ve been married for over forty years, and it sounds like certainly he was helpful. How has he helped in terms of your partnership over the years?
MB: What he does is all the taxes, and checks the contracts. He does all the business side of things and all the nitty-gritty household things that would otherwise take time away. He does help an awful lot.
MH: I notice that you just got back from Turkey. Do you find those trips provide fodder for your books as well?
MB: Not really. I write best here. My husband is the traveler. He’s a dedicated traveler. I’m not very good at traveling. I just moan and whine. But I do find the break is very good for me. Yes it does, come to think of it, you’re quite right—the total change of scene and country—so that when I come back here I can start fresh.
MH: Do you listen to audiobooks?
MB: I will listen to yours. I was put off a bit, can I tell you this? I was in a bookshop. I won’t say where it was, and the bookseller introduced me—it was in America. She said, “And here’s Marion, who’s come a long way to talk to you.” Then she said, “And at no expense to herself.” She asked, “Will you read?” I said, “No. I’m not an actress.” So I did the usual general talk. But she grabbed the book—it was a Hamish Macbeth—and said, “I’ll read.” Instead of Lochdubh, she called it Lochdab, and Hamish became Amish, and she said things like, “What’s that in the road up ahead?” (laughs). It was a disaster. So I’m always worried about audiobooks in case I don’t like them.
MH: We have a new Hamish Macbeth book coming up. What’s next?
MB: The next Hamish is going to be Death of a Nurse. I found when I was working newspapers, the men absolutely fell head-over-heals for nurses. At that time, it was the days of black stockings. And there’s something about a striped uniform and black stockings that drove them simply mad. So, a private nurse descends on the area and all the men are falling over themselves for her. You’ll see what happens.
MH: It has been delightful to chat with you. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’re all very excited about the audiobook release of Death of a Policeman. Thanks again for joining us today.
MB: Well it’s been a delight talking to you, and thank you very much.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with M. C. Beaton. You can find Death of a Policeman, other M. C. Beaton audiobooks, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in January 2014.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Death of a Policeman
New York Times bestselling author M. C. Beaton is back with a new mystery featuring Scotland’s most laconic and low-tech policeman.
Local police stations all over the Highlands are being threatened with closure. This presents the perfect opportunity for Detective Chief Inspector Blair, who would love nothing more than to get rid of Sergeant Hamish Macbeth. Blair suggests that Cyril Sessions, a keen young police officer, visit the town of Lochdubh to monitor exactly what Macbeth does every day. Macbeth hears about Blair’s plan and is prepared to insure that Cyril returns to headquarters with a full report. But Cyril is soon found dead, and Hamish quickly becomes the prime suspect in his murder.