Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, by MC Beaton

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2012

TITLE: Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1990s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts the Agatha Raisin series

Putting all her eggs in one basket, Agatha Raisin gives up her successful PR firm, sells her London flat, and samples a taste of early retirement in the quiet village of Carsely. Bored, lonely and used to getting her way, she enters a local baking contest: Surely a blue ribbon for the best quiche will make her the toast of the town. But her recipe for social advancement sours when Judge Cummings-Browne not only snubs her entry—but falls over dead! After her quiche’s secret ingredient turns out to be poison, she must reveal the unsavory truth…

Agatha has never baked a thing in her life! In fact, she bought her entry ready-made from an upper crust London quicherie. Grating on the nerves of several Carsely residents, she is soon receiving sinister notes. Has her cheating and meddling landed her in hot water, or are the threats related to the suspicious death? It may mean the difference between egg on her face and a coroner’s tag on her toe…
I confess I look at those cosy mysteries with punny titles the way lit fic readers probably look at Mills & Boons: assuming they're cookie-cutter and not the kind of book I'd want to read. I know I shouldn't judge before reading, but again, as that theoretical lit fic reader might think of M&Bs, there are so many of them, and no indication of which might be the wheat and which the chaff. And then someone I know, whose taste in books I respect, mentioned a few times that he loves Agatha Raisin, so I knew where to start.

Where I started was at the beginning of this very long-running series. As Quiche of Death opens, Agatha Raisin, a self-made career woman, decides to sell her successful PR business and retire to a small village in the Cotswolds. Agatha grew up in Birmingham, with unemployed drunks for parents. One of the very few good things they ever did was take her on holiday to the Cotswolds once. Since then, the area has been a shining ideal in Agatha's head, her version of paradise.

Agatha pictures blissful scenes of easily fitting into village life, but it's not that easy. Everyone's polite enough. They say hello on the street and maybe make a comment about the weather, but that's it. She can't seem to progress any further than that, to get anyone to take any notice of her existence (other than her horrible snobby neighbour, who hates Agatha for stealing her cleaning lady).

And then Agatha sees a sign for the local fĂȘte, and she knows what she needs to do: win one of the prizes in the baking competition. That'll be the ticket! There's the small matter of her not knowing how to cook, but that's a minor obstacle. Agatha knows this little deli in London where they make the most amazing spinach quiche. And then, one of the judges died poisoned, and it was Agatha's quich that did it.

The police think it was just an accident, but Agatha is convinced there is something fishy there, and decides to investigate.

Agatha is a delight, mainly because she's so flawed and human. She can be self-involved and abrupt, and her professional background taught her how to be quite ruthless, but she's a decent person at heart, and I loved her to bits. The way she was written reminded me of Amelia Peabody, in Elizabeth Peters' wonderful series. Things are narrated from her point of view and voice, but even when she's completely oblivious to the effect she's having on others, you can see quite clearly the effects she's having.

The secondary characters were fun and really added to the story. There's a good combination of over-the-top and nasty (albeit in really human ways), and lovely people. Roy, one of Agatha's former employees, was the only exception. He didn't really make sense to me as a character.

I also loved the setting. Carsely is charming, but it's not an idealised perfect little village. The whole thing has a really good sense of place.

The plot of the mystery itself wasn't particularly great, but to be honest, this wasn't what the book was about, so I didn't really care. I really enjoyed it.

BTW, this was an audiobook, and it was really good. Penelope Keith's narration was great, and really made it come alive.

MY GRADE: A solid B


Ana T. 21 November 2012 at 12:03  

I've read some MC Beaton books but under her other name Marion Chesney and enjoyed them. I must check this series too.

Darlynne,  22 November 2012 at 00:18  

Although I enjoyed the Hamish MacBeth series (why oh why did the televised version make Hamish seem such an idiot?), Agatha's adventures generally frustrated me. She's so bossy! I am willing to admit, however, that your point about her being flawed and human is worth considering. I may have to try her books again.

Rosario 22 November 2012 at 06:47  

Ana: Those are Trad Regencies, right? Not my favourite subgenre, but I might give some a try!

Darlynne: Oh, I liked the bossiness! To me, at least in this book, it was endearing, even as I could see it was really annoying some of the people around her.

I really need to try the Hamish MacBeth books!

Ana T. 22 November 2012 at 09:21  

No, it's an Edwardian series that starts with this one

Rosario 22 November 2012 at 15:05  

Ohh, I like the sound of that, Ana!

Ana T. 22 November 2012 at 19:01  

I reviewed two other books in that series:

And now I'm thinking that I really should continue this series :-)

Marianne McA,  25 November 2012 at 00:47  

I thought this was a pretty dreadful book when I read it, but enjoyed listening to the series on Radio 4. I think Penelope Keith made the difference.
FWIW, I read several Chesney when I was younger - because they had her books in my local library - and she never worked for me (I probably wouldn't have tried Beaton if I'd realised who she was.)
But last year there was an offer on 'Emily goes to Exeter' so I downloaded it, and quite enjoyed it.

Rosario 25 November 2012 at 15:38  

Marianne McA: That bad! Penelope Keith was great, I agree (this one was the unabridged version, much longer than the one she did for Radio 4), but I really enjoyed the underlying story as well. It would be interesting to see if you would like it any better today...

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