John C Adams Reviews 'Agatha Raisin and the Busybody'
Agatha Raisin and the Busybody by M C Beaton
(Constable and Robinson, 2010)
As someone who has lived in a village for the last twenty years, I can personally attest that English villages are full of busybodies. So when I came across this volume from the prolific Agatha Raisin series, which have been adapted for TV, I was determined to find out more.
Glasgow-born M C Beaton is known for the Hamish Macbeth detective series set in the Scottish Highlands, which was also adapted for TV. She also wrote romance novels under a variety of pen names. Beaton worked for the Scottish Daily Express as a theatre critic, reporter and editor before becoming a writer.
Agatha's pre-Christmas trip to the Mediterranean has flopped, so she returns to the Cotswold village she calls home and throws herself into some of its sedate entertainments. In her absence, public opinion about local busybody John Sunday has reached fever pitch and he is murdered outside the vicarage in Odley Cruesis. Only two people have left the meeting that was taking place inside, at which Agatha is present, so when the local lady of the manor hires her to investigate our sleuth begins with a short list of suspects.
Agatha's client Miriam is then bludgeoned to death and her manor house razed to the ground. Her son Tom arrives from America to investigate, paying Agatha to find his mother's murderer. However, she soon becomes suspicious of his casual attitude towards his mother's death. Meanwhile, she discovers more about John Sunday's blackmailing and extortion activities and the list of suspects grows.
The action takes place over quite a long period, and the identity of the murderer isn't revealed until a year after John Sunday's death. It is perhaps a surprisingly bloodthirsty murder mystery, with John's death and Miriam's followed by a third murder. A fourth killing is unrelated to the main investigation, which did stretch my acceptance of the plot a little bit.
The whole series is highly amusing, and Beaton has a genuine flair for comedy. It was refreshing to see this author work their worldview into their work, in among the cameo portraits of numerous characters and the unflinching portrayal of village life. I really felt like I got to know her in this book.
Agatha is the sort of flawed personality who mucks up over and over, only to still alight upon the culprits through a mixture of sheer brilliance and dogged determination. She was utterly relatable, and I came to care about her more as a character. I liked her for her determination to engage with the world on her own terms, something that one often sees in detectives of fiction. However, her lack of self-belief earned my sympathy and I found myself wishing that she could find more confidence and happiness.
A murder mystery series lightened with comedy has a welcome place within the genre, which can often be serious in nature. I wouldn't always want to read lighthearted murder mysteries, but it was nice to have a break from straightforward detective fiction and enjoy a good laugh along the way.
Beaton's passing in 2019 has robbed British fiction of a national treasure much loved for her fictional detectives.
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Many thanks to MediaModifier and Charles Lamb for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.