Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Introducing Agatha Raisin, by M.C. Beaton

I picked this up because the name M.C. Beaton sounded familiar. This compendium of two mysteries was on the shelf in the breakfast room of the small hotel where I was staying in Paris. In short, cannot recommend.

Agatha Raisin is a pugnacious Londoner in her mid 50s with a Birmingham background of which she is ashamed. After a successful career in PR, she has sold her firm and bought a cottage in the Cotswolds for the life she has always imagined. Of course country life is a poor fit for a pushy city woman, and alleged hijinks occur as she uses her PR techniques to force her way into acceptance.

The set up is strong, the execution is very poor. Agatha is appallingly inconsistent in her characterization, pushy one moment, then weirdly shy and adolescent the next as the plot requires. Her two sidekicks in "The Quiche of Death" are offensive stereotypes: a (literally) screaming queen of a gay character who by the end of the book is looking for a suitably docile and stupid woman to marry, and an inscrutable but wise half-Chinese police officer who teaches Agatha about herself despite being a good thirty years younger than she is. Fortunately, these two characters are mostly abandoned by the second book, to be replaced by a handsome and single male neighbor who (predictably) runs from any threat of commitment and who Agatha pursues in un-funny ways. Thus Beaton hits a two-fer of mid-life cliches with one "comic" pairing.

The mysteries are not well constructed. In fact, in both cases, the actual murderer is the most obvious suspect and the only real mystery is why the police haven't solved the cases well before Agatha even realizes the deaths are suspicious.

The first mystery "The Quiche of Death" centers around a village competition that Agatha enters in order to get the village to accept her. Of course, she can't cook, so she buys a quiche from a specialty store in London and enters it as her own. She doesn't win, and is so angered by the obvious favoritism (the competition judge awards the prize to the women with whom he has been having an affair for years--she always wins) that she storms out and leaves the quiche behind.

That night, the judge's wife leaves Agatha's quiche as supper for her husband, who dies immediately after eating it. Who could the murderer be? Will the police arrest Agatha? Well, obviously not. Agatha is not going to keep claiming she made the damn thing, and it's obvious that she is no baker. So who is the next logical suspect.

Well, who is ALWAYS THE FIRST SUSPECT IN A MURDER--THE SPOUSE MAYBE? And, it is. Of course it is. And she killed him by baking a quiche with cows bane in it and substituting it for Agatha's spinach one. And she did it because she was sick of his philandering. And the only reason--literally, the ONLY reason that this "mystery" lasted almost 200 pages is because the police couldn't find any evidence that she had baked the poisoned quiche in her kitchen. It takes Agatha 200 pages to realize that THERE IS A FULLY EQUIPPED KITCHEN IN THE BUILDING WHERE THE COMPETITION TOOK PLACE AND LITERALLY EVERYONE IN THE VILLAGE BAKES THERE. So the wife didn't bake it at home, she baked it in the community kitchen, which even the most bumbling police officer should have noticed in one of the 300 times they had been in that same damn kitchen themselves. Stupid plot for a mystery.

Next book, "The Vicious Vet," a new vet arrives in the village and starts playing all the middle-aged single women who fall over themselves in humiliating fashion and give him money for his dream of an animal hospital. He promises to marry them all, of course. Turns out, though, that he's got a mean streak and hates house pets. He euthanizes one woman's cat without her consent, and otherwise alienates almost all the women within two weeks, then turns up dead while performing a vocal cord operation on a racing horse at the local aristocrat's stables. He's stabbed with the syringe of horse tranquilizer.

Who could the murderer be? No chance of it being Agatha this time, thank god. Well, let's see, if I were going to do some basic police work, I'd look at who benefitted from the death. Turns out the vet has a partner in the clinic, who is also the beneficiary of the dead man's will. So if you follow the money, it leads to the partner. If you follow the means--who knew what was in the syringe and that it could be fatal, it leads to the partner. Guess who it turns out did the crime? The partner.  Nothing clever about it at all.

So why do we even need Agatha to solve these murders anyway? We don't, unless following Agatha around is either more entertaining than the police (it isn't, because she's a horrible person with no redeeming features other than being the main character), or because it gives us a way to explore the world of the village. Except it doesn't do that, since everyone is basically a cliche or a character that disappears after being interviewed the one time. Agatha is bored by village life, she is self-centered, she is routinely stupid and bumbling--too stupid to have been any kind of a PR success, and she manages to irritate me enormously.

The most egregious example of this is in "The Vicious Vet" when she manages to get her handsome neighbor James to join her for dinner in a pub after they do some amateur sleuthing. On the drive to the pub, she feels a pimple growing on her nose, so she goes through some allegedly hilarious maneuvers to keep him from seeing it. She stops at a drug store to buy cream, concealer, and lipstick, then runs to the ladies' room to deal with it. But (ha ha ha) the light is too dim, but she just happens (?) to have a 100 watt lighbulb in her car, so she sidles in and out with her face averted so James won't see her pimple, ha ha. He thinks she's odd, ha ha, but waits for her. She can't reach the light fixture so she stands on the sink, which rips out of the wall and floods the room. So she walks out, closes the door (like that's going to do anything) and takes James to a different pub, where she heads straight for the ladies' room again.

Are you laughing yet? It gets worse. By the time she comes out of the second restroom, the police are already waiting for her, because the first pub owner has already discovered the damage and realized she did it. (Village mysteries are just not that hard to solve, is what we are learning here.) So she caves and offers a check for an obscene amount of money to cover the damage, which the pub owner is refusing to accept, preferring to make a scene and humiliate her. He also insists on filing a criminal charge. So James steps in and does some basic damage control along the lines of "you don't have that kind of money, Agatha" and "why was that sink such a hazard anyway--I think you could sue for negligence and emotional distress Agatha" which causes the pub owner to accept a much smaller check for the whole thing to go away.

And way--who is supposed to be the PR professional in this scene? Why are we humiliating Agatha and simultaneously stripping her of any professional competence as well? Why does she have to be rescued by a man anyway? This was published in 1992! It would have been just as offensive in 1892, frankly--Irene Adler is appalled at such an incompetent woman is being foisted on the public at this late date.

Too bad, really. I won't be reading any more of these. And there are twenty-five of them!