Home > Hot to Trot (Agatha Raisin #31)

Hot to Trot (Agatha Raisin #31)
Author: M. C. Beaton


Foreword by R. W. Green


He simply had to be up to something—or she was. It was all a bit fishy, or so Agatha Raisin would have thought. A married man calling on a woman of advancing years and spending hours having cosy little private chats? Agatha would have thought there was definitely something going on … and there was. M. C. Beaton—Marion—was working out what agonies and triumphs would next befall Agatha Raisin, and her male visitor—me—had the immense thrill and huge privilege of helping her do it.

I first met Marion many years ago. My wife, Krystyna, was Marion’s publisher in London for more than twenty years, so Marion and I met many times at publishing functions. We enjoyed chatting, both being Scots, both having been journalists, and both being writers. Marion, it has to be said, was a far more successful journalist and writer than me, but she was always as keen to find out what I was up to as I was to hear stories about her adventures in Scotland, the United States, France or the Mediterranean. She had led a fascinating life.

At publishing events, Marion was inevitably whisked away to meet and greet, but when Krystyna and I visited her in the Cotswolds on occasion, we were able to talk more freely, sometimes about books, more often not. I came to regard Marion as a friend and always looked forward to seeing her. Last year, when she was not in good health and finding it difficult to get her ideas down on paper, I was glad to be able to help.

Marion was an avid news watcher, following world events on TV, and they were a bountiful source of inspiration for her. Current affairs stories regularly reminded her of events from her own past, which she would sometimes mould into scenes involving Agatha, James, Charles or the village of Carsely. Those scenes might suggest plots, or a way to develop a storyline. The scenes she planned stayed in her head until they were committed to paper as part of a plot device or something to add to the life story of one of her large cast of regular characters. She knew everything about her characters. She knew where they lived, how they talked, how they dressed, how they moved and what they thought. She didn’t regard them as friends—they were her inventions, not her closest chums—but she knew them all intimately nonetheless. And she kept all of their character traits and quirky foibles in her head. She had no need of any kind of character bible or written notes.

Sir Charles Fraith, for example, was described to me by Marion as “a predator when it comes to women.” She was quick to point out that she didn’t mean he is dangerous or violent towards women, simply that he always has one eye on his next conquest. He is well-bred, well-educated and intelligent but, despite his grand house and vast estate, he is, as she put it, “impecunious.” That, she swiftly explained, was not the sort of word she liked to use very often in her books. Marion liked to keep her stories moving along briskly, having fun, travelling light, unencumbered by excessively ornate prose.

When I visited Marion to start working with her, I expected that she might want me to take dictation on the new book and possibly chip in a few ideas as we went along. No. She was smarter than that. She wanted to talk about storylines, incidents, murders and what cards the characters would be dealt. Marion did not, for example, want Sir Charles Fraith to remain penniless forever. She thought it would be good for him to have lots of money for a change. How long she would allow him to keep it was another matter.

I made lots of notes, all the while expecting a dictation session to begin. That wasn’t Marion’s idea at all. She wanted to make sure that I understood Agatha’s world, so she sent me away with my notes to write a sample chapter the way she would do it, staying true to the characters and the way that life, death and murder played out in Carsely. If what I came up with was the way she would weave an Agatha Raisin murder investigation, then we might be able to work together. If it wasn’t as she wanted, well, we would still be friends.

It’s easy to forget how horribly nervous you used to feel as a child in the classroom, handing a homework essay to the teacher. It all came flooding back when I gave Marion the print-out of what I had written. I wasn’t exactly hopping from one foot to the other as Marion read through it—I sat down to avoid that—but the silence was excruciating. Suddenly, without looking up, she said, “No, I wouldn’t use that phrase,” and crossed out a line with her pen. A moment later, “Not ‘smirk.’ Agatha doesn’t ‘smirk.’” Then she looked up and smiled. “Apart from that, this is just how I’d have done it.”

Agatha would not only have been deeply suspicious of our clandestine meetings, but also absolutely furious about the laughs we had at her expense. A phrase involving snakes springs to mind. Marion and I were of one mind in having fun with the writing—otherwise, how could it ever be fun to read? I thoroughly enjoyed working with Marion and I am honoured that she trusted me to meddle with her characters. I will miss her more than I can say.



An Introduction from M. C. Beaton on the Agatha Raisin Series


The writing road leading to Agatha Raisin is a long one.

When I left school, I became a fiction buyer for John Smith & Son Ltd. on St. Vincent Street, Glasgow, the oldest bookshop in Britain—alas, now closed. Those were the days when bookselling was a profession and one had to know something about every book in the shop.

I developed an eye for what sort of book a customer might want, and could, for example, spot an arriving request for a leather-bound pocket-sized edition of Omar Khayyam at a hundred paces.

As staff were allowed to borrow books, I was able to feed my addiction for detective and spy stories. As a child, my first love had been Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. Then, on my eleventh birthday, I was given a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Views the Body and read everything by that author I could get. After that came, courtesy of the bookshop, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell, Eric Ambler, Agatha Christie and very many more.

Bookselling was a very genteel job. We were not allowed to call each other by our first names. I was given half an hour in the morning to go out for coffee, an hour and a half for lunch, and half an hour in the afternoon for tea.

I was having coffee one morning when I was joined by a customer, Mary Kavanagh, who recognised me. She said she was features editor of the Glasgow edition of the Daily Mail and wanted a reporter to cover a production of Cinderella at the Rutherglen Rep that evening, because the editor’s nephew was acting as one of the Ugly Sisters, but all the reporters refused to go.

“I’ll go,” I said eagerly.

She looked at me doubtfully. “Have you had anything published?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, lying through my teeth. “Punch, The Listener, things like that.”

“Well, it’s only fifty words,” she said. “All right.”

And that was the start. I rose up through vaudeville and then became lead theatre critic at the age of nineteen.

After that, I became fashion editor of Scottish Field magazine and then moved to the Scottish Daily Express as Scotland’s new emergent writer and proceeded to submerge. The news editor gave me a tryout to save me from being sacked, and I became a crime reporter.

People often ask if this experience was to help me in the future with writing detective stories. Yes, but not in the way they think. The crime in Glasgow was awful: razor gangs, axmen, reporting stories in filthy gaslit tenements where the stair lavatory had broken, and so, as an escape, I kept making up stories in my head that had nothing to do with reality. Finally, it all became too much for me and I got a transfer to the Daily Express on Fleet Street, London.

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