As The Pig Turns (Agatha Raisin, No. 22)
M. C. Beaton
Minotaur Books, 2011
304 pp., $24.99
As the Pig Turns
I'm going to share a dirty little secret. Even though I subscribe to Books & Culture and review serious books for several publications, sometimes I get tired of consuming the literary equivalent of quinoa and brussels sprouts. Sometimes I just want a bowl of ice cream—reassuringly familiar, unfailingly pleasant, yet saved from blandness by a sprinkling of nuts. A friend of mine relaxes by reading Karl Barth (I am not making this up). Myself, I prefer M.C. Beaton.
As the Pig Turns, book 22 in Beaton's Agatha Raisin series, will be released this week. In the opening scene Agatha, stopped in a long line of construction traffic, reaches for a tissue to blot the drip on the end of her nose. A policeman raps on her car window. "He was squat and burly, with a squashed-looking nose in his open-pored face and piggy, accusing little eyes …. 'I am ticketing you for taking your hands off the wheel,' " he announces, fining her 60 pounds. Little wonder that by chapter's end, the policeman has turned up at a pig roast - as the pig.
That's about as grisly as an Agatha Raisin book is likely to get. These are, at first glance, cozy mysteries set in the English Cotswolds (where tourists go if they want to pretend that jolly olde England still exists). In Carsely, the fictional village Agatha retired to when she sold her London-based public relations agency, members of the Ladies Society still address one another by their surnames; and the vicar's wife, a wise and gentle soul, liberally dispenses the oil of human kindness whenever friction threatens.
But Carsley is nothing like St. Mary Mead, and the amateur sleuth introduced in Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992) is nothing like Miss Marple.
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 one-woman soft-cop/hard-cop combination; alternately bullying and wheedling on behalf of her clients. Journalists often gave space to her clients just to get rid of her. She was also an expert at emotional blackmail and anyone unwise enough to accept a present or a free lunch from Agatha was pursued shamelessly until they paid back in kind.
What's more, Agatha is vain. She hogs the limelight. She can't bear to be around younger, prettier women. She takes credit for other people's achievements. She constantly falls in love with unsuitable men. She's bossy and rude. And she has "small bearlike eyes."
Why do I love her? Not because she's a good detective. Though puzzles get solved and thugs are brought to justice, it is rarely because of Agatha's intuitions (it's easy to sympathize with the police when they beg her to stop interfering). That she survives 22 episodes is mostly due to the frequent intervention of her loyal coterie of dei ex machina: James, the neighbor with whom she is romantically obsessed; Sir Charles Fraith, a charming but freeloading and undependable minor aristocrat; Roy Silver, a former employee with bizarre fashion tastes; and Bill Wong, a patient and forgiving policeman.
I suppose one reason I love Agatha is that she tickles my shadow side. She doesn't worry about most social conventions (though she earnestly wants to look slimmer and younger). She doesn't care about being politically correct. She's likely to say just what I would say if I hadn't been relentlessly civilized by a mother whose mantra was "What would people think?" And yet Agatha has a soft center. The child of abusive alcoholic parents, she looks for acceptance through achievement. She falls in love easily (and usually unwisely). She adores the motherly vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby, and she is generous - if overbearing - with people who need help. But now I'm psychologizing about books that are meant to be fun, not deep, and I must admit: the main reason I love Agatha is that she makes me laugh.
How does M.C. Beaton - Marion Chesney in real life, user of half a dozen pseudonyms, author of nearly 80 books in addition to the Agatha Raisin series - keep us coming back for more? After reading (or listening to: Donada Peters [Wanda McCaddon] is the perfect Books on Tape narrator) a dozen of the early Agatha Raisin books, I was beginning to find the plots just a bit too predictable. Would Agatha never stop attracting danger, pursuing the wrong men, and insulting people who might pull her out of her self-imposed scrapes? But suddenly, between Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House (14) and Agatha Raisin and the Perfect Paragon (15), our heroine turns professional, opens a detective agency, and hires helpers. Not that she knows what she's doing, but when has mere incompetence ever stopped Agatha?
Give the woman credit - she learns from experience. Though her nemesis, Inspector Wilkes, will never admit it, she and her fellow agents begin seeing things that the police have missed. In a heart-stopping instant in As the Pig Turns, for example, she perceives that the carcass hanging "on a spit over a bed of blazing charcoal" is actually that of a man. And Agatha is off on another wild adventure, no longer confined to sleepy Carsely but also involving Las Vegas, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. The labyrinthine plot, worthy of Elizabeth George but funnier, involves a ruthless band of professional criminals determined to mow down all opposition, a rival detective agency hoping to ruin Agatha, a kidnapping gone awry, and plastic surgery. Additional murders happen or are narrowly averted. Agatha's friend Roy, not a devout man, is saved by a miracle (and goes back to spiking his hair). Agatha once again finds herself in the grip of infatuation.
Oh, Mrs. Raisin, thought Mrs. Bloxby sadly, the things you do for love. And where is this obsession going to lead?
I guess I'll have to wait until 2012 to find out.
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