Born: June 10, 1936;

Died: December 30, 2019.

M.C. Beaton, who has died aged 83, was the pen-name of Scottish author Marion Gibbons (née Chesney), who wrote mystery, romance and historical novels under a range of pseudonyms; in a career of just over forty years, she estimated that she had written at least 160 novels. Yet her most famous pseudonym will continue to be most widely associated with two characters in particular; Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin.

While Macbeth might be familiar in the public memory as much for his portrayal by Robert Carlyle in the popular BBC Scotland show (1995-1997), Gibbons was reportedly not happy with how the adaptation turned out. Her Hamish was a strapping, red-haired Highlander, and Carlyle – concurrent with his career-defining role as the brutal Begbie in Trainspotting – was cast decidedly against type. The plots of the extensive range of titles she had already written by this point were also often fused together or jettisoned entirely, to serve the demands of television drama.

Nevertheless, the show was a success, and drew even more readers to her work. Gibbons’s original version of Macbeth appeared in print in the 1985 novel, Death of a Gossip, which was inspired by a fishing holiday which she and her husband, Harry Scott Gibbons – they lived in Brooklyn, New York, at the time – took to Sutherland in the north of Scotland.

Intrigued by the small local communities she saw there, she decided to take her first step into mystery writing (at this point she was a fiercely prolific writer of regency romances) with a tale set against such a backdrop. Located in the fictional Highland town of Lochdubh, Death of a Gossip was based on the Gibbons’s own trip, an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with an ensemble cast of suspects attending the local salmon and trout fishing school.

Over thirty-four novels, each titled in the ‘Death of a…’ style (the final one, Death of a Love, is due in February), Gibbons/Beaton expanded upon the village and its ensemble of characters, melding cosy familiarity with murderous subject matter.

The Gibbons even moved to a croft in Sutherland, where Harry reared black sheep. Once their only son, Charles, had graduated from university, and in a partial attempt to cut down lengthy commutes to attend literary events, the couple moved again, with their new location again tying closely to Gibbons’ work.

Introduced in Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992), the title character of the book lived in a world which seemed almost to be an intentional parody of quaint Cotswolds gentility. In the first book Agatha – a city-slicker PR with a rags-to-riches background, who is looking to escape the rat race in London – sells her Mayfair firm, moves to the area’s sleepy countryside and enters a baking competition, where her quiche promptly kills one of the judges, and she is forced to investigate her way out of trouble.

Again set in the fictional locations of Carsely and Mircester, and built around an ensemble of local characters, the Agatha Raisin books reached a total of thirty titles and were also adapted for other media. In a piece of pitch-perfect casting, Penelope Keith gave her life on Radio 4, while Gibbons’ fellow Scot, Ashley Jensen, played Agatha in the ongoing Sky 1 series, which began in 2015 and had its third series last year.

As taken with the Cotswolds as they had been by Sutherland, the Gibbons moved to the village of Blockley in 1994. “In the Cotswolds, some of the old values still exist,” the author told Cotswold Life. “Kindness, honesty, gallantry and decency.” However, she also told My Weekly that “the nastier side of (Agatha’s) character is based on me. I am not politically correct.”

Although her major characters overshadowed everything else she did in the wider public perception, international fans of Gibbons’ work (which has been translated into seventeen languages) have a wealth of work to dive into, and the sheer amount of it explains why she has often been cited as the most-borrowed author in UK libraries.

Beginning in 1979, when she had three novels published, she wrote under her maiden name Marion Chesney (including her Regency romances and various series, such as the School for Manners and the Travelling Matchmaker), and as Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, Helen Crampton, Charlotte Ward and Sarah Chester. Yet the success of Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin overtook all others, and her writing for all but these main characters had died away by the early 2000s.

Marion Chesney was born in Glasgow in 1936, in a house filled with books, into which she dived to escape a childhood which she described as “not happy”. She began work as a bookseller at John Smith & Sons, and then became a journalist, first as theatre critic for the Scottish Daily Mail, then with Scottish Field, then as a crime reporter for the Scottish Daily Express; a job she disliked, although she appreciated the opportunity to see another side of life in deprived areas.

Wishing to spend more time with Charles as he grew up, she left work and began writing novels in her spare time, spotting a gap in the market for – as she told the Telegraph – those “in between Mills & Boon and Booker books. [There were no] books for a bad time on a wet day.”

She detested the ‘cosy’ description and attributed her prolific nature to a Scottish work ethic. Her death after a short illness at the age of 83 was announced by her son. She was, said her editor Hope Dellon in 2014, “sharply observant and plain-spoken, with no time for arrogance or pretension, but with insight and sympathy for the underdog.”