M.C. Beaton Obituary

Written by Mike Ripley


She wrote as Jennie Tremaine, Sarah Chester, Ann Fairfax, Charlotte Ward, Marion Chesney and, most successfully, as M.C. Beaton, but all her pseudonyms were eclipsed by the names of two of her fictional creations: Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin.

M.C. Beaton, who has died aged 83 after a short illness, was born Marion Chesney in Glasgow in 1936. On leaving school she went to work as a fiction-buyer for John Smith & Son in St Vincent Street, the oldest bookshop in Glasgow, possibly the country. It was there that she pursued her love of crime fiction, having read Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Lord Peter Views The Body at the age of eleven.

Frustrated by book selling and with ambitions to be a writer, she talked herself into a job as a theatre critic on the Scottish Daily Express, aged 19, graduating to being a reporter, covering fashion and then crime, and moving to the head office of the Express in London in the ‘glory days’ of Fleet Street. In the 1960s she reported on the Profumo/Keeler affair and on the resurgence of Oswald Mosley’s brand of national socialism. Whilst trying to interview Mosley walking down The Strand, she was filmed by a BBC news crew and when broadcast – to her horror – the voice-over described the scene as ‘Mosley and his loyal followers’.

In 1969 she married fellow journalist and Express Middle Eastern correspondent Harry Scott Gibbons (who pre-deceased her in 2016), with whom she had a son, Charles, after both decided to quit Fleet Street and travel, eventually moving to America where Gibbons found work as a newspaper editor in Virginia and Connecticut. It was in America, whilst reading ‘some imitators of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances’, that Marion uttered the fatal words ‘I could do better’ and challenged by her husband, she started a novel. It was her husband who took the early chapters to the literary agent  who was to represent her in the US for more than thirty years, and a prolific career was born.

Although she herself probably lost count, she was to write more than 160 novels in the romance and historical genres, but major success came with her switch to crime fiction under the name M.C. Beaton and the introduction of her Scottish policeman hero Hamish Macbeth in 1985. The adventures of the unconventional Constable Macbeth seemed tailor-made for early Sunday evening television viewing, which duly transpired with three popular series for the BBC starring a pre-Trainspotting Robert Carlyle between 1995 and 1997.

Her attitude to the television series was ambivalent and at a crime writing festival in Reading in 2010, she told a shocked (but amused) audience in no uncertain terms that Carlyle had been mis-cast as he was a Lowland Scot whereas Macbeth was a Highlander. She continued to write the Macbeth novels, however, and the 34th   in the series will be published next month.

On returning to England the Gibbons family had established themselves in  the Cotswolds on the assumption that their son would be going to Oxford. In fact he went to Cambridge, but the Cotswolds provided the inspiration and the setting for Marion’s next foray into cosy crime fiction, though that was a term she disliked and, in public, said so quite forcefully. It did not prevent her publishers from describing her as ‘The Queen of the Village Mystery’.

She saw her new creation, Agatha Raisin, was an anti-hero in the Becky Sharp mould. As she said in 2017: ‘I wanted someone you didn’t like but you might want to win out in the end’. Agatha,  delightfully intolerant, gin-swilling and gloriously non-PC, was a former public relations executive turned amateur detective, solving crimes in a picturesque Cotswold village, and made her debut in the wonderfully titles Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death in 1992. Thirty Agatha books followed, Beaton’s latest being due for publication in October this year, as did television and radio adaptations. Following a successful pilot episode in 2014, Sky has commissioned three series starring Ashley Jensen as Agatha, whilst Radio 4’s adaptations featuring Dame Penelope Keith, who also reads the audio book versions, increased her fan base.

Immensely popular in the USA and the seventh most-borrowed author from British libraries, Marion Chesney Gibbons is thought to have sold some 21 million books. She herself was vague about the actual number of titles she had written, putting her impressive total of around 250 down to ‘the curse of the Scottish work ethic’.

Like her fictional characters, she was flamboyant and wielded a razor-sharp, Glasgow-honed wit, and she was generous to fellow writers and a big draw at festivals and crime writing conventions, although she rationed her appearances saying ‘Not many people know who I am and I do like it that way.’

Marion Chesney Gibbons, aka M.C. Beaton, journalist and author, 10 June 1936 – 30 December 2020.

M.C. Beaton

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