The Letter B (A-to-Z Challenge)

M.C. Beaton

Hamish MacBeth Mysteries

Agatha Raisin Mysteries

The letter of the day is B, which stands for writer M.C. Beaton, and I am going to talk particularly about her Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin books.  However, we will get to Ms. Beaton by way of another writer, Paul Fussell, and his book Class: A Guide through the American Status System.

Fussell’s Class is a book that will ruin your life because after you read it you will view your every action, your every fashion or decorating or entertainment or career or educational choice, every single word that comes out of your mouth, your every motivation, your every preference or opinion – spoken or unspoken – in light of whether it could mark you as a member of the insipid, unimaginative, unrefined, uninteresting, envious, pathetic, anxious, desperate, tasteless, crawling, slavering, gullible, obsequious, badly dressed, badly educated, culturally ignorant, dumb, bitter, totally and irredeemably awful middle class.  (His description, not mine.)

I read this book as an impressionable twenty year old about to graduate from an institution that Mr. Fussell is pleased to call a “college” (his quotation marks, not mine) and was truly devastated to learn that as far as social status was concerned my life was already ruined before it had really even started.  And worse, I hadn’t actually realized there was anything wrong with it.

Well of course this led to all sorts of insecurities.  But one great thing came out of it.  Here is a gem of a quote that cut me to the quick:

“It’s among the middle class that tastes in reading get really interesting, because it’s only here that pretense, fraud, and misrepresentation enter.  The uppers don’t care what you think about their reading, and neither do the proles.  The poor, anxious middle class is the one that wants you to believe it reads ‘the best literature,’ and condemnatory expressions like trash or rubbish are often on its lips.”*


Ouch!  That was ME!

But wait!  This was something I could fix!

I became aggressively ecumenical in my reading and that alone has been worth every twinge of class insecurity I would otherwise never have known enough to suffer.

And so it is thanks to Mr. Fussell’s cruel but accurate characterization of my middle-class reading habits and prejudices that I did NOT reflexively turn up my nose at these delightful books on account of the cheap binding and the flashy cover art and the fact nearly all the titles contain the words Murder, Death or Killer.**  Mean old Mr. Fussell’s unkind words prodded me to discover my Writer of the Day, M.C. Beaton.

I didn’t find her by myself, though.  Among my facebook friends is a college classmate, an intelligent, accomplished, articulate woman who earns her living working with words, and one day this friend posted a status about how excited she was that the new Hamish MacBeth book was coming into her local library.*** I was intrigued, because this woman is smart, and here she was all enthusiastic about a writer who has over a hundred titles in mass market paperback, some of them actually (gasp!) romance novels.****  I must confess that a bit of nasty middle-class prejudice raised its head and smirked in a superior way and started to disapprove.  I told it to shut up.  If this friend likes these books, they must be pretty good.

I can’t remember which book I started with.  They’re all good.  But why? The characters all race around at an impossible pace and way too many events are crammed into each day. Many of the characters are caricatures, the situations are totally unlikely, the timelines are impossible, the villains are preposterous, the detectives get by with way too much illegal activity, the behavior of the police doesn’t seem even remotely accurate.  You notice these things, and yet you keep reading.

It must be the writing then, but here again I can’t tell you exactly why I love it so.  The words are simple and the sentences patter along effortlessly as if they just sort of fell together that way.  Even adjectives you’d normally call hackneyed and awkward are hackneyed and awkward in a hilarious, spot-on way.  It is a style that at first glance seems easy to imitate until you try it yourself and see how it goes.  I did and I can tell you I didn’t feel quite so good about myself afterwards.

Since I obviously can’t even explain why I find these books appealing I probably don’t have any business writing about them, but the thing is that every time I see a new one I grab it and totally drop out of life’s responsibilities for the next two hours, and I think that any book that can make me do this is a book that I have a duty to share with others.  Let’s try this.  Let me give you a short, out-of-context sentence fragment that sometimes pops into my head uninvited and makes me blow snot bubbles:

“…rage warred with vanity in his fat breast, but vanity won.”*****

And let’s say that if you think that was funny, you might like to read these books.

In Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfram, the amateur detective gets sick of detecting and decides to toss off a quick mystery novel.  She writes forty pages and then reads them and throws them away because they are just so awful, and the funny thing here is that the example given of the bad writing is obviously a spoof of Beaton’s own style.  It’s off by just enough to make it really cringingly terrible, but close enough that you can’t quite put your finger on the difference.  In my opinion, at least, that is talent.  I don’t care how many books she cranks out how quickly, I don’t care that the books are bound so cheaply that the paper warps in the least humidity and the cover art fades in the sunlight, I don’t care that they are unrealistic and silly and totally without redemptive qualities and that each of them takes two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.  Beaton’s a genius and I love her.

See you tomorrow for Letter C,



*Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide through the American Status System. New York: Summit, 1983. Print.


**A middle-class “Rubbish Alert!”


***I can’t do the library, because the fines add up to way more than just buying the book in the first place.


****Not the ones I read, though.  I do have some standards left.

*****Beaton, M. C. Death of a Maid: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery. New York: Mysterious, 2007. Print.


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One Response to “The Letter B (A-to-Z Challenge)”

  1. Lise Mendel Says:

    Sounds like perfect beach read stuff. Thanks for the pointer.

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