The Best Fiction Books » Mystery

The Best Cosy Mysteries

recommended by M C Beaton

North Scotland is wonderful countryside, a marvellous setting for a murder. The wind just screams from horizon to horizon – it’s like living in a speeded-up nature film. You open up the kitchen door and catch a passing sheep…

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Your first choice is by Eric Ambler – Topkapi: The Light of Day.

This really is the funniest, best-written book ever. It’s about a wee silly man called Arthur, a sneak thief, who gets caught up in a plan to rob the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Peter Ustinov was in the film of the same name and he did it brilliantly. The book is written in such a way that you end up rooting for this awful little man. He’s a great craftsman, Eric Ambler: I think he’s better than John le Carré.

You also like Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.

This book is just so well crafted. Everything seems to be building up against the two women, that it looks as if they really did kidnap this girl, and keep her locked in the attic – and how on earth are they going to get out of it? It’s just very, very well done.

So do you admire Josephine Tey partly because her books are cleverly plotted?

It’s more than that, it’s the charm of the writing. The Daughter of Time was a classic, where her detective goes out to prove that Richard III didn’t kill the Princes in the Tower, but The Franchise Affair remains my favourite. It’s just lovely writing.

What about Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson?

Being Scottish, it’s one I can read again and again. I think the difference between the Lowland Scot and the Highlander is really brought out between Alan Breck and David Balfour. It’s very well written, very well done – and I think Robert Louis Stevenson has great charm. He’s very hard on marriage, you know. He seems to be rather sour about marriage, but not in this book.

Isn’t it more of a teenage book?

I suppose it would be, but it still captures my heart – particularly as I write about the Highlands in the Hamish Macbeth stories. The fact that he’s captured the character of the Highlander – which is still a different creature to the Lowland Scot.

Are you a Highlander yourself?

No, I’m not: I was born in Glasgow. We had a croft in the North of Scotland, up in Hamish Macbeth country for a short time. It’s wonderful countryside, a marvellous setting for a murder. The wind just screams from horizon to horizon – it’s like living in a speeded-up nature film. You open up the kitchen door and catch a passing sheep… So that is the attraction of Kidnapped.

When did you read it?

I read it when I was in my teens, of course. I read it again about five years ago, and it still charmed me. It’s the same with Through the Looking Glass, though I haven’t put that down as one of my choices. I think it’s simply because of having lived in the Highlands, and my husband having sheep in the Highlands, and having fallen in love with the better side of the Highland character.

Also on your list are the Collected Poems of T S Eliot.

I love ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’: ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’ and especially the last lines:

I grow old…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me. 

It’s just the rhythm.

What are the poems about?

I think some of them are considered surrealist, like ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.’ A lot of his poetry has gone into general usage. Being a city person, I also like the atmosphere of the city, of London, the descriptions of fog that I remember from my youth.

Tell me why you like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

Before I worked for the Daily Express I thought Scoop was a marvellous work of fiction. Then I found it wasn’t that far from the truth. They do make various mistakes like employing the wrong person. It was actually before I moved to Fleet Street, when I was on the Scottish Daily Express. There was this industrial reporter on the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express was desperate to get him. So they took this chap out and they wined and they dined him – and they gave him a good salary and signed his contract to the end of time. But then they looked up one day and he was just sitting at his desk, staring into space. And they said, ‘Come on – give us that great industrial stuff you gave the Mirror!’ And he said, ‘Oh that’s not me, it’s so and so – we just happen to have the same name.’ So the fact that William Boot, the man who writes the nature note, ends up as a war correspondent is very amusing to me.

When I read Evelyn Waugh I end up laughing out loud, which is very rare with books.

Yes, there are odd occasions when one does actually laugh out loud, perhaps at P G Wodehouse in Right-Ho, Jeeves, when Gussie Fink-Nottle gets drunk and does the prize-giving at the boy’s school. I think I love the black humour, the cynicism in Evelyn Waugh.

These five books I picked out are ones that I would read again. I actually have gone back to reading a lot of vintage detective stories – Julian Symons, and Francis Iles, Nicholas Blake, Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell. Penguin used to do a series of green and white covers for mysteries, and I started my career as a fiction buyer in a bookshop in Glasgow. That was the time when bookselling was a profession. You were expected to take the booksellers exams, to study English literature, and you weren’t allowed to call each other by your first names – it was always Mr this and Miss that. We were all devoted to books, of course. But they all rather looked down on me. They said, ‘Good God – she reads things like Walter Scott, and John Galsworthy. You must read Proust and Dostoevsky!’ They were all right, but I didn’t like Jean-Paul Sartre, or François Mauriac. Or André Gide. I felt they were terrible bores. I still do.

Are there newer authors you like too?

I enjoy a lot of the new ones. There’s a Glasgow writer, Denise Mina, who wrote the Garnethill trilogy. There are an awful lot of very, very good crime writers. I think I like the comfort of the good English, and the well-established plot. I don’t like too much violence. I don’t mind when it’s a cop series, when the violence is part of the story, but when it goes off into these endless autopsies, and almost sado-masochistic torture, I get put off. I suppose I read for escape, which is really my motive in writing. I always wanted to write something that would give someone a few hours’ entertainment on a wet day. I’m fortunate in that I have no literary ambitions. But people forget that just because it is easy to read, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to write. I’m writing as hard as I can. I know it comes out a bit frivolous, but maybe I’ve got a frivolous mind.

I definitely laugh out loud when I’m reading your books, and always read funny bits out to my husband.

Thank you very much for saying that.

He’s quite jealous actually.

Is he a writer?

No, not at all, but at the end of the day I want escapism, I want to curl up with a book, which isn’t always appreciated.

I think you can see from my collection that’s exactly why I read. Also, these are people I might have liked to have met. Well, apart from Evelyn Waugh, who I wouldn’t like to have met, and T S Eliot, who was probably too depressed. But I wouldn’t have minded meeting Robert Louis Stevenson.

Why not Evelyn Waugh?

If you read his Sword of Honour trilogy, you’ll see. He really did want to be an army hero, but he wasn’t. And he was very waspish and generally unpopular. I do think it’s necessary to want to meet people, but they may not be the way they appear in their books.

So do you really live in the Cotswolds, like your heroine?

Yes, I live in a village called Blockley. It’s near Moreton-in-Marsh. I wouldn’t have minded living somewhere nearby, with marvellous names like Lower Slaughter and Upper Slaughter, Lower Swell and Upper Swell, but I’m in Blockley.

You wouldn’t want to live in Scotland again?

No, I’m settled in here now. I recently went back to Glasgow for the first time since the 1960s and I couldn’t believe it, it was so clean. Even the river was clean. I was crime reporting in Glasgow, you know, and I remember ghastly tenements and the worst slums in Western Europe. There were razor gangs and fog and gaslights – and Hogarthian drunkenness. And suddenly I’m in the middle of this cleaned-up city and you could see the sky. It was always polluted when I was there, by blast furnaces and chemical works – heavy industry.

Is Agatha Raisin you?

She says all the things I’d like to say, but I haven’t got the nerve.

Sometimes I resolve to take some pages out of her book and be very direct and rude to people.

There was a couple I knew in Sutherland. It was before the smoking ban, and he went to a restaurant with his wife, and there were glass ashtrays on the table. So they both lit up and people at the table behind him started coughing pointedly and waving their hands. So he summoned the maitre d’ and asked him, ‘Can you move these people, they’re annoying me.’

I’d never have the nerve. You know sometimes you get days with irascible thoughts inside… Of course, Agatha is emotionally not very grown up, which I think is a necessary part of a writer’s character.

But you’re happily married.

Yes, very.

So searching for a husband is not part of your real life.

Fortunately not. God, I would hate to go back to that. I once did a programme for the BBC on dating in middle age. I was 57 at the time and I felt quite young. And I found that women, the reason they wanted to marry was to have someone to change the light bulbs. They didn’t like going into pubs and restaurants by themselves. They just desperately needed a man around – not particularly for sex or romance, but to do things in the garden. And they had sort of teed off at the Hammersmith Palais and I sat in the front row as they were setting up the cameras, and all these creaky old men kept advancing on me for a dance. I felt quite terrified. It was like the night of the living dead. But then I shouldn’t say that, that’s the sort of thing Agatha would say – very cruel.

Where do you live?

I’m in New York.

I was a Brooklyn girl. I lived in Brooklyn for 12 years. Rupert Murdoch started up a tabloid called The Star. It’s moved to Florida now, but the offices were on Third Avenue then. And my husband and I worked on it – and then he got a job on a tabloid up in Connecticut and I was at a loose end so I started writing Regency romances. The Regency period was from 1811-1820. But when I’d written over 100 of them, I was getting a bit weary of 1811-1820. Then I was on a fishing holiday in Sutherland with my husband and the idea dawned on me that it’d be a marvellous setting for a murder story. So that’s how Hamish Macbeth was born.

How do you feel about the i-Pad and the digital age?

My books are in e-books all over the place. But for myself I’m a paper person. Perhaps I like the old-fashioned detective stories because you can get them in your handbag. The fashion now is for such big books.

December 27, 2010

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M C Beaton

M C Beaton

M C Beaton is the author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth mystery series. The 25th Hamish Macbeth adventure was published earlier this year, and the 21st Agatha Raisin mystery, Busy Body, comes out in October. She has also written more than 100 historical romances.

M C Beaton

M C Beaton

M C Beaton is the author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth mystery series. The 25th Hamish Macbeth adventure was published earlier this year, and the 21st Agatha Raisin mystery, Busy Body, comes out in October. She has also written more than 100 historical romances.