MC Beaton obituary

Crime fiction writer who created the detectives Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin

The best known pseudonym of the crime writer Marion Chesney Gibbons, who has died aged 83, was MC Beaton, although she also wrote as Jennie Tremaine, Sarah Chester, Ann Fairfax and Charlotte Ward. But all these names were eclipsed by those of two of her fictional creations, Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin.

Chesney Gibbons wrote more than 160 novels in the romance and historical genres, but major success came with her switch to crime fiction and the introduction in 1985 of her Scottish police hero Macbeth. The adventures of the unconventional constable 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 Chesney Gibbons told a shocked but amused audience in no uncertain terms that Carlyle had been miscast – as he was a Lowland Scot whereas Macbeth was a Highlander.

She saw her 1992 creation Agatha Raisin as an antihero 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, intolerant, gin-swilling and gloriously non-PC, is a former public relations executive turned amateur detective, solving crimes in a picturesque Cotswold village, and makes her debut in the wonderfully titled Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. Thirty Agatha books followed, as did television and radio adaptations. Following a successful pilot episode in 2014, Sky commissioned three TV series starring Ashley Jensen as Agatha, while Radio 4’s adaptations featuring Penelope Keith, who also reads the audiobook versions, increased her fan base.

Marion Chesney was born in Balornock, a district of Glasgow. On leaving school she went to work as a fiction buyer for John Smith & Son in St Vincent Street, the oldest bookshop in Glasgow. It was there that she pursued her love of crime fiction.

Frustrated by bookselling and harbouring ambitions to be a writer, she talked herself into a job as a theatre critic on the Scottish Daily Express, graduating to 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 return to political life of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Trying to interview Mosley when he was walking down the Strand, she was caught on camera by a BBC news crew. When the film was broadcast, to her horror the voiceover described the scene as “Mosley and his loyal followers”.

In 1969 she married a fellow journalist, the Express correspondent Harry Scott Gibbons, with whom she had a son, Charles, after both had decided to quit Fleet Street and travel, eventually moving to the US, where Harry found work as a newspaper editor in Virginia and Connecticut. It was in America, while reading “some imitators of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances”, that Marion uttered the fateful words “I could do better” and, challenged by her husband, started a novel. Harry took the early chapters to the literary agent who was to represent her in the US for more than 30 years, and a prolific career was born.

On returning to the UK, the Gibbons family established themselves in the Cotswolds on the assumption that their son would be going to Oxford University. 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 “cosy crime” was a term she disliked and she said so quite forcefully in public. It did not prevent her publishers from describing her as “the queen of the village mystery”.

Immensely popular in the US and the seventh most borrowed author from British libraries, Chesney Gibbons is thought to have sold around 21m books. She was vague about the number of titles she had written, putting her impressive total down to “the curse of the Scottish work ethic”.

Like her fictional characters, she was flamboyant and wielded a razor-sharp, Glasgow-honed wit. 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.”

Harry died in 2016. Chesney Gibbons is survived by Charles.

• MC Beaton (Marion Chesney Gibbons), journalist and author, born 10 June 1936; died 30 December 2019

Contributor

Mike Ripley

The GuardianTramp

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