Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Love, Lies and Liquor by M.C. Beaton

This week’s “stop” on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme “tour” is the letter “L.” Thanks and kudos to our tour guide, Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, for what I’m finding to be an interesting and fun tour. My selection for this letter is M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor. Published in 2006, it’s the 17th of her Agatha Raisin series.

The novel begins in the village of Carsely, where Agatha Raisin keeps herself busy with her detective agency and her work with the Carsely Ladies’ Society. The only disruption in Agatha’s otherwise placid life is that her ex-husband, James Lacey, has taken the cottage next door to hers. Agatha is still very conflicted about James; she wants to get back together with him, but at the same time, she feels herself well rid of him. One day, James invites Agatha to what turns out to be a disastrous barbecue, during which he treats her shabbily. When she leaves the party, angry at the way she’s been treated, James decides to try to make it up to his ex-wife with a surprise getaway holiday. Against her better judgment, Agatha agrees to go and soon loses herself in fantasies about what the trip will be like.

Agatha’s illusions are soon destroyed by the reality of what James has planned – a trip to Snoth-on-Sea, a small village in Sussex where he and his family had enjoyable holidays during his boyhood. In the intervening years, Snoth has deteriorated and is now dilapidated, poor and a shadow of its former self. The Palace Hotel, which used to be noted for its quiet elegance, is now cheap and shoddy and serves terrible food. Disappointed in the trip and furious with James, Agatha wants to leave immediately, but her ex-husband persuades her to stay just long enough for him to make other arrangements. That’s when the real trouble begins for Agatha. That night, during an abysmal dinner in the hotel’s dining room, Agatha gets into an argument with Geraldine Jankers, an unpleasant woman who’s there on a honeymoon trip with her fourth husband. Matters worsen when Geraldine’s son, Wayne, sticks up for his mother and threatens James. After getting the best of Wayne in the fight that quickly follows, James agrees to Agatha’s plea to go somewhere else, at least for dinner. They’re just returning to the hotel after eating when Agatha is stopped by the police and informed that she’s a suspect in a murder. Geraldine Jankers has been strangled on the beach outside the hotel – with Agatha’s scarf.

Before long, Agatha is able to prove to Inspector Barret of the local police that she wasn’t responsible for Geraldine Jankers’ murder, and she and James are free to go. James is all too eager to leave and take a real holiday, but Agatha is intrigued by the murder and wants to investigate it. James leaves Snoth angrily and heads for the Marseilles Bed and Breakfast owned by some friends of his. Agatha stays in Snoth to see what she can find out about Geraldine Jankers’ death. She’s soon joined by Patrick Mulligan and Harry Beam, who work at her detective agency, and the three start asking questions.

It turns out that several people had a motive to kill Geraldine. For one thing, her son, Wayne inherits her money; he and his wife, Chelsea, are eager for whatever is coming to them. There’s also the fact that Geraldine has a very “checkered” past. One of her ex-husbands, Charlie Black, has just gotten out of prison for jewel theft. The jewels that he stole were never recovered, and it’s pretty certain that Geraldine had at least some of them, and knew where the rest are. Charlie worked for Brian McNally, who’s involved in several lines of organized crime, including a plot to bring a casino to Snoth-on-Sea as a money-laundering venture. McNally is also very eager to get his hands on the jewels.

When Wayne and Chelsea are both murdered, Geraldine’s friend and childhood sweetheart, Cyril Hammond and his wife, Dawn become interesting suspects. With Wayne dead, Cyril inherits all of Geraldine’s wealth. They’re not the only suspects, either, as Agatha, Patrick and Harry look into Geraldine’s past. In the end, Agatha and her team are able to untangle the mysteries surrounding Geraldine Jankers and find Geraldine’s murderer, but not before Agatha’s kidnapped once and nearly killed three other times.

Beaton moves the story along at a fast pace, but not so fast that the reader can’t follow along. There are lots of suspenseful moments in the story and there are several surprises and a few twists to keep the reader engaged. There are several sub-plots, too; for instance, there’s one sub-plot involving Cyril Hammond and his wife. There’s the ongoing subplot about Agatha’s relationship with her former husband, and his adventures throughout the novel. There’s also a subplot involving Deborah Fanshawe, who has recently arrived in Carsely and has set her sights on James Lacey. Beaton ties the various plot threads together and, to her credit, she doesn’t make much use of coincidence in doing so. It turns out that all of the threads are related by the decisions that various characters make, and Beaton is clear when that happens. Still, the reader will want to keep careful track of the various characters and events. The end of the story isn’t “clean,” as in many more traditional crime novels. But it’s an honest and plausible ending.

The setting and atmosphere of Love, Lies and Liquor play important roles in the story, and they’re very convincingly written. Throughout the novel, terrible weather plagues Agatha and her fellow detectives, and in the end, a storm comes close to ruining the Palace Hotel, which is the scene of a good part of the action in the novel. The hotel itself is run-down, shoddy and poorly-managed, and most of the staff is unprofessional; this makes for a very effective “fit” with the rest of the story, and provides for some refreshing humor.

It’s really the characters, though, that keep the reader interested in the story. The victim herself is unpleasant, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for her equally-unpleasant traveling party. What makes Geraldine Jankers’ character interesting isn’t her personality, though; it’s her shady and complicated past, which Beaton reveals bit by bit. The characters of Harry Beam and Patrick Mulligan are appealing, and it’s particularly interesting to see how they use their own talents to help Agatha solve the mystery, and to get her out of more than one dangerous spot.

Agatha Raisin herself is a memorable character, chiefly because she’s so very human. She’s impatient and grumpy, sometimes seems to spoil for a fight, and has a bad habit of talking before she thinks. She sometimes jumps to conclusions, she’s got a rough-hewn exterior, and she’s very much her own worst enemy. At the same time, she’s intelligent, resourceful, warm-hearted and very loyal to her friends. She’s courageous and isn’t afraid to say exactly what’s on her mind. Readers are seldom neutral about Agatha; either they love her for her courage, sense of humor, unique personality and determination or they get angry at her for her inability to make sense of her personal life and her habit of getting herself into trouble. What’s so appealing about Agatha Raisin is that she’s a complex character. For that reason alone, the Agatha Raisin mysteries are worth a try. For those who are already Agatha Raisin fans, Love, Lies and Liquor will be a welcome read.

If you haven’t read any of Agatha Raisin’s adventures, I’d encourage you to read them in order. Love, Lies and Liquor works well as a standalone, in that the plot and the characters make sense even if one hasn’t read the earlier novels. However, it’s much easier to understand how and why Agatha and James Lacey interact as they do if one knows their history. That’s also true of the characters of Patrick Mulligan and Harry Beam; if one’s read the earlier novels, they’re almost like old friends.

7 comments:

  1. Oh, I love these books!

    I can imagine a reader would be a little confused coming into the James/ Agatha relationship with no background. Good idea to recommend reading the series first!

    Elizabeth

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  2. Elizabeth - I have to say, I happen to very much like the Agatha Raisin series, too : ). I really find Agatha so down-to-earth, real and, well, human that I can identify with her. In that sense (down-to-earth and practical) she reminds me of your Myrtle Clover. They both speak their minds, too, and are really interesting characters.

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  3. Thanks for this contribution Margot. I must say though Agatha Raisin drives me insane. However I've found if I listen to Penelope Keith reading the stories I enjoy them very much.

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  4. I do have one of the series and yet to get around it. Hope I do so soon!

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: L post!

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  5. Kerrie - Almost no-one feels neutral about Agatha Raisin. Either they love her or, like you, she drives them insane. I'm glad you've found a way to enjoy the stories; isn't it interesting how listening to a novel can give such a different experience from reading it?



    Gautami - Thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about getting around to reading a book one's got. You should see my TBR list!

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  6. I'm on the "love Agatha Raisin" list. Meeting her all those years ago has changed completely what I cheer for in sleuths. Now I have no patience for the goody-two-shoes detective - with the exception, of course, of the classics written by Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie. Thanks, Margot!

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  7. Bobbi - I know exactly what you mean! My favorite detectives are those who are human, who have faults and foibles and who go deeper than "the perfect sleuth." Sometimes, it's fun to read about a sleuth who rises above her or his faults.

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