Miss Marple Was Never This Terrifying
Over the course of fourteen years in Marketing, I worked with a lot of PR executives, from really quite a lot of companies. They came in two basic varieties: young girls who intimidated me by being prettier, slimmer, better-dressed and posher than me; and older women who intimidated me by being richer, tougher, cleverer and with a better car than me. (There were a few men as well, but they had a henpecked look about them and never seemed to last long.)
The factor that united these groups, however, was that I couldn’t get the hang of any of them. I suspect the feeling with was entirely mutual, because – despite all the Darlings and the air-kissing and the biscuits – I was always utterly convinced that they secretly hated me too, for being Northern and scruffily dressed and cynical, and for being the client and therefore being someone they had to be nice to, even though under ordinary circumstances they would just have given me a scornful glance and flounced off to a party in Chelsea.
But – in the same way that my son is fascinated with the Undead levels of Skylanders – I do really quite like watching people like this from a distance. Also, I really really like the works of Agatha Christie. Discovering wonderful blogger Mme Guillotine’s pleasingly 3am review of a book I’d never heard of before, about a horrible PR executive who retires to the country and solves mysteries, was a very good moment.
Plot summary. Agatha Raisin, recently-retired PR wonder-woman, has sold her hugely successful Mayfair PR firm and retired to the annoyingly idyllic Cotswolds village of Carsely. After making a deadly enemy of her next-door neighbour Mrs Barr by employing ruthless recruitment tactics to blatantly steal her cleaning-lady, Agatha decides it’s time to raise her profile by entering the Village quiche-making contest. Since she can’t actually cook, she enters a quiche from the wondrous Quicherie, a chic London delicatessen owned by Mr Economides.
Unfortunately, the quiche doesn’t win (this is because the judge, Mr Cummings-Browne, only ever gives the Quiche prize to his secret squeeze Mrs Cartwright). Even more unfortunately, it turns out to be poisoned. Most unfortunately of all, the person it poisons is Mr Cummings-Browne, who is discovered horribly dead behind the sofa the day after the Quiche contest. Suddenly, Agatha is in the frame for murder. Determined to clear her name and impress all her neighbours with her brilliant crime-solving expertise, Agatha starts poking around in the investigation to see if she can work out what happened.
Having said how much I love Agatha Christie, I should probably say at once that – despite its clear debt to the world and sensibilities of Miss Marple – Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death isn’t much like a Miss Marple book. Christie’s special authorial trick is being cleverer than the reader. She constructs intricate mysteries that you almost never see the solution to (I say “almost never” only because over the course of nearly a hundred books, it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll stumble over the right solution before the last page). M C Beaton’s mystery, by contrast, is pretty un-mysterious. Mr Cummings-Browne was murdered by the person you’d expect to murder him, and for more or less the reason you’d expect. Christie writes detectives who are charming and likeable, clever students of character whose personal eccentricities are more than made up for by their wisdom and kindness. Agatha Raisin is horrible, and motivated entirely by personal benefit.
Nonetheless, Agatha Raisin, in all her nastiness and spite, is what makes this book such a delight.
When it comes to fiction, there are few things more delightful than a really well-written monster. Beaton, on the other hand, reeled me effortlessly in with this particularly excellent description of Agatha in the first chapter:
Agatha was aged fifty-three, with plain brown hair and a plain square face and a stocky figure. Her accent was as Mayfair as could be except in moments of distress or excitement, when the old nasal Birmingham voice of her youth crept through. It helps in public relations to have a certain amount of charm and Agatha had none. She got results by being a sort of soft-cop / hard-cop combination…
When I first read this, I thought, “But, but, you can’t print that, you can’t! That’s so clearly meant to be -” and remembered a long-ago PR foe, whose name I’m not going to mention here because 1) I’m probably wrong and 2) I don’t want to get sued. If you’ve spent any time around the PR industry, you’ll probably have your own real-life analogue for Agatha. Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of being fed and patronised by well-dressed people who are pretending to like you, you’ll probably feel a sense of recognition. Agatha, like all the best literary monsters, is our own worst selves; snobby, spiteful, venal and petty, self-interested, self-absorbed but not in the least bit self-aware.
And yet, somehow, despite all this, she’s likeable. Mrs Bloxby, the near-saintly vicar’s wife, likes her. Bill Wong – the amiable British-Chinese detective who breaks all the rules of Detective fiction by being cleverer than Agatha – likes her. Damn it, I like her, even though I roundly hated all the real-life people she reminds me of. (Her neighbours Mrs Barr and Mrs Cummings-Browne both hate her, but they’re awful, so they don’t count.)
Why is it enjoyable to read a story in which a charmless woman solves the murder of a charmless man by his charmless nemesis, in a series of events set in the small, snobby, us-and-them world of an insular Cotswold village? I think the answer must lie in the gleeful pleasure of looking at awful stuff from a distance. In the same way that I loved watching alligators eating the bloated corpse of a hippo on “Nature’s Wild Feast” (but would run a mile from actually being there in person), I love watching Agatha as she rampages around the Carsely, upsetting half the village on a daily basis and not giving a damn about any of it.
This isn’t to say “Agatha Raisin” is perfect, because it’s not. While Agatha and Bill are delightful, well-drawn and well-rounded, the minor characters are a bit cardboardy and two-dimensional. The dialogue is wooden in places, and Agatha’s Cowbane-recognition skills strains the reader’s credulity. But the overall result is so charming that you’d have to be very hard-hearted not to forgive it. I can see the Agatha Raisin books attracting the kind of cult following who have in-jokes and code-words and special costumes, and enjoy getting together in hotels for weekends and trading their favourite lines of dialogue. I won’t be one of them, but I’ll certainly be passing several more happy, undemanding hours by reading more in the series.