“Agatha Raisin And The Deadly Dance” by M. C. Beaton (2004)

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“The thing that finally nudged Agatha Raisin into opening her own detective agency was what she always thought of as the Paris Incident.”

Any prolific writer is bought to have a few stinkers. Stephen King gave us The Tommyknockers. Toni Morrison gave us Jazz. Even my beloved Agatha Christie managed to write Passenger to Frankfurt. M. C. Beaton has never been one of the world’s finest writers, unlike the other three, but her stories are entertaining enough to keep your interest up. As I’ve said on others from her though, she does have a habit of cramming a few too many plots into a single book, which comes into full force here.

Agatha Raisin has had some success in solving crimes in and around her village of Carsely, so has finally decided to take the plunge and open her own detective agency. Taking on her new neighbour, Emma Comfrey, as a secretary, the two do not rub along together quite as nicely as either would hope, perhaps because of differences or maybe because they’re a bit too similar. The detective agency deals for a while with missing cats and divorces, before Catherine Laggat-Brown gives them their first real case.

Catherine’s daughter has been threatened with murder, but the family are determined to go ahead with their family party. Agatha attends, and soon discovers that there was a sniper at a window of the house, managing to save the lives of Catherine and her daughter. Now the hunt is on for who wanted her dead, and why. Things become even more complicated by Agatha’s feelings for a number of the men in her life, and the fact that someone seems very desperate to have her removed from the picture entirely. Maybe the killer is closer to home than she thought.

First up, the title. There’s absolutely no reference to this in the plot. Yes, the key murder plot takes place at a party, but there’s no dancing in particular, so one must assume that the title is meant metaphorically to describe the actions the myriad characters perform around one another. If so, everyone’s got two left feet. The characterisation is thin, and people appear with simple descriptions and then vanish again as quickly, still somewhere in the background but with little justification for their existence. This is most strongly shown with Agatha’s detective agency. She originally hires Emma to be her secretary, but when she discovers that she’s a good detective (although how this can be proved from finding one cat and one teenager, neither of which required much brainpower), she is promoted and another secretary is drafted in. This one, Mrs Simms, too shows her skills with one case and so becomes another detective, with a temp filling in as secretary from then on. By the end of the novel, neither of these detectives are working for Agatha anymore, and we’re left wondering almost what the point of them was. Everyone also has a strange tendency to fall in love – and obsessive love at that – at the drop of a hat.

I also wonder that by this point in her career if editors are scared of questioning Beaton too heavily. There are so many places where superfluous sentences linger, dodgy descriptions and bad dialogue haunt the sloppy paragraphs, and the point of view jumps around with dizzying frequency. There’s also an epilogue tacked on that is clearly only there for light relief, but adds absolutely nothing to the story, simply shows Agatha as being a bit ridiculous once more. While I’ve read more of the Hamish Macbeth novels and this is only my second time with Agatha Raisin, I’ve already tired of her as a character somewhat. A middle-aged Bridget Jones, with a venomous personality.

The plot is shaky at best, and it wouldn’t really be possible to solve this one yourself. Yes, I can see where the clues are being clumsily dropped, but they come together in such an unusual shape, and definitely with some things that we should have been told sooner. The reason for the crime is somewhat flimsy, and there are far too many coincidences for anything to be entirely satisfactory.

Don’t write off Beaton entirely, but this is not a good one to start with.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Agatha Raisin And The Busy Body” by M. C. Beaton (2010)

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“Having found that her love for her ex-husband, James Lacey, had more or less disappeared, Agatha Raisin, middle-aged owner of a detective agency in the English Cotswolds, decided to hit another obsession on the head.”

The rise in M. C. Beaton novels on the list this year is entirely down to my grandfather. Having discovered a few of her early ones on my shelf, he became obsessed and started buying up others he found and then passing them on to me when he’d finished. The Hamish Macbeth ones I’d got used to, so I decided to try an Agatha Raisin.

It’s Christmas in the little village of Carsely, but not everything is merry and bright thanks to health and safety inspector George Sunday. Zealous and tediously officious, he seems to have a grudge against everyone in the area having any fun. He bans the vicar from putting the tree on the church roof as ever, forbids the putting up of Christmas lights without a proper cherry picker, and even disallows people to put decorations up around their own homes.

A meeting is called to decide what to do about him, but it gets interrupted by George himself when he falls against the window, stabbed. Any number of people have a motive, but few seem to have had the opportunity. Agatha Raisin decides she must bring the killer to justice and give herself a PR boost. Elsewhere, one of the key witnesses thinks she’s remembered something fishy about the night Sunday died, but she too is killed before she has a chance to tell anyone. As the villagers turn on one another, Agatha must work out who hated Sunday most – and it’s a very long list.

These books have much the same flavour has the Hamish Macbeth ones, just moving the action from the Highlands to the Cotswolds and having the main character be a private detective instead of a policeman. One of the issues here is entirely on my side, in that I’ve thrown myself down in the middle of the series, and while the crimes appear to be independent, there is evidently a through-line with the secondary characters that I need to know about. Hell, one of them actually dies in this one, and I didn’t feel the emotional impact one presumably does if they’ve got to know the people.

As ever with Beaton though, and this is surprising given how prolific she is, there is an awful lot going on in this novel. The main murder gets overshadowed fairly quickly by another that (no real spoiler) turns out to be entirely unrelated. It’s like the novel got invaded by a second one and only when that’s been cleared up can we return to the main story line. The whole novel takes place over the course of a year which, in fairness, does add realism to the police work and doesn’t see everything wrapped up in a week (trials and DNA tests don’t work like that), but it means there is a lot of time to kill. During the time, Agatha has major surgery and develops swine flu, and neither of these seem to affect the story at all, instead being glossed over in a few short paragraphs. Heaven knows, there are stories to tell here. Agatha Christie one had Poirot solve a murder while he was in bed with a cold – surely giving Agatha Raisin one of these handicaps to battle against adds further jeopardy?

All in all, the titular mystery itself is good, but it feels like three novels’ worth of stuff trying to happen all at the same time and it ends up all being a bit cluttered. Sure, I’ll return, but I may have to head back into the series for some earlier stuff to work out a few of the motivations. Still a good example of what happens to people when they get a little bit of power or fame and it all goes to their head. People will stop at nothing to get the happiness they think they deserve.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!