Marion Chesney, who in midlife began writing novels and produced more than 150, including mystery series written under the pseudonym M.C. Beaton that featured the endearing crime solvers Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth, died on Dec. 31 at a hospital in Gloucester, in western England. She was 83.
The St. Martin’s Publishing Group, whose Minotaur Books published her Agatha Raisin series, announced the death. No cause was given.
Chesney held an assortment of jobs, including several in journalism, before publishing her first novel in 1978. She wrote romances before turning to mysteries in 1985 with “Death of a Gossip,” the first of more than 30 Hamish Macbeth stories.
A later novel described Hamish, the constable in the fictional village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands, as “tall and gangly and lanky and unambitious,” yet he had a shrewdness that, book after book, enabled him to crack cases. A BBC television series based on the books, with Robert Carlyle as the constable, ran in Britain from 1995 to 1997.
In 1992, again writing as M.C. Beaton, Chesney introduced a very different sort of crime solver: Agatha Raisin, a London publicist who retires to Carsely, a fictional village in the Cotswold region of England, where Chesney herself had recently moved after living in the Scottish Highlands since the mid-1980s. Agatha isn’t a detective, but, like Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote,” she is better at deducing whodunit than the paid professionals are.
In a 2006 interview with Booklist, Chesney explained that her editor had suggested she try a mystery set in the Cotswolds, and her son inadvertently gave her the hook.
“My son’s housemaster was holding a sale for the Vietnamese boat people,” she said. “He asked me for ‘some of my splendid home baking.’ I didn’t want to let my son down by saying I couldn’t bake, so I bought a couple of quiche and put my own wrappings on them. That was the background to the plot of ‘The Quiche of Death.’”
In that book, the first in the Agatha Raisin series, Agatha tries to pass a quiche off as her own homemade entry in a quiche-baking contest, and the judge ends up poisoned.
Agatha too got a TV series, with Ashley Jensen in the lead role. It premiered in 2014 on Britain’s Sky 1. A new season, on Acorn TV, began in October.
Chesney was born on June 10, 1936, in Glasgow. Her father, David, was a coal merchant, and her mother, Agnes, was a homemaker.
“I always wanted to be a writer,” she told Booklist. “I would haunt libraries, dreaming that perhaps one day …”
First, though, came a job as a buyer for a Glasgow bookstore, which exposed her to a lot of literature. And it gave her an accidental entree into journalism.
A woman she had helped find a cookbook turned out to be an editor for the Glasgow edition of The Daily Mail and asked if she would want to write a 50-word notice on a production of “Cinderella” that included another editor’s nephew in the cast — the understanding being that she had to mention the nephew.
“I wrote the 50 words and thought my brief moment of glory was over,” she told Booklist. “But the next week, an office boy gave me two critics’ tickets for the Glasgow Empire,” a major theater. Soon she was chief theater critic.
She later worked as a fashion editor and as a crime reporter on Fleet Street.
In 1969 she married Harry Scott Gibbons, a journalist whose work led the couple to move to the United States. She was a fan of Georgette Heyer’s romances set in the Regency period of British history, and when she complained to her husband that Heyer’s many imitators often bungled the historical facts and generally wrote poorly, he challenged her to write a novel herself.
The first, “Regency Gold,” was published under the pen name Jennie Tremaine. She wrote more than 100 romances, under that name, her own, and pseudonyms that included Ann Fairfax, Helen Crampton and Charlotte Ward. In recent interviews she acknowledged that she had lost count of how many books she had written, though she estimated that it was at least 160.
“As an ex-reporter I write very quickly,” she told the online magazine Shots, “and there are always ideas all about, like what people say, stories in the newspapers, or, in the case of Agatha, an ongoing irritation with political correctness.”
Agatha was brusque and in some ways unlikable, whereas Hamish was laid back. Both often found their insular small towns disrupted from without.
“Outsiders always spell trouble for the inbred societies that Beaton observes with such cynical humor,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in The New York Times in 1998, comparing “Death of a Scriptwriter,” a Hamish Macbeth mystery, and “Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death,” both of which had recently been published. “If these strangers in paradise don’t themselves poison the well water, they tap the sources of discontent from which all malice and bitterness flow.”
Chesney’s husband died in 2016. She is survived by their son, Charles Gibbons.
In an interview last year with the British magazine My Weekly pegged to the recent publication of the 34th Hamish Macbeth book, “Death of an Honest Man,” Chesney was asked about retirement.
“I will be working until I die,” she said, “because I am old and I have contracts to honor.”