M. C. BEATON – The Skeleton in the Closet.

St. Martin’s; 1st paperback edition, March 2002. Hardcover edition: St. Martin’s, March 2001.

BEATON Quiche of Death

   Have you ever picked up a book just as you’re climbing into bed, intending to give it a good five minutes before turning out the light, going perhaps a chapter or two, just to see how interesting it is? And then, forty or fifty pages later, discovering that thirty minutes have gone by, and you haven’t even noticed?

   I have, and I just did. This is not one of Beaton’s series novels — she actually has two going, as I suppose everybody knows: the Agatha Raisin mysteries, and separately, the cases of Scottish constable Hamish Macbeth. This one’s a stand-alone, a cozy little tale of murder and amateur detection, English village style.

   And the very first line is a keeper: “In the way that illiterate people become very cunning at covering up their disability, Mr. Fellworth Dolphin, known as Fell, approaching forty, was still a virgin and kept it a dark secret.”

   Living with his mother, working as a hotel waiter, and at his age still under her thumb, Fell is one of those people that life seems to have passed by. Until, that is, his mother, unloved, dies, and he discovers that he is the heir to a small fortune. “But that’s impossible!” Fell exclaims to the lawyer. “We never even had a television set.”

BEATON Skeleton in the Closet

   In his deceased father’s old desk he also discovers a hidden metal box containing 50,000 pounds in currency, stacked in neat bundles. Caught by surprise by an aunt who offers to move in with him, Fell invents a fiancee, Maggie Partlett, a waitress at the same hotel. Maggie is agreeable, moves in (platonically) and — no gold-digger she, don’t get the wrong idea — together they become pair of reluctant sleuths, digging deeply into Fell’s past. (Where did the money come from?)

   While the first forty or fifty pages are the best, there are many more twists and turns in the plot to come — I haven’t given it all away, by any means. Fell and Maggie are hardly professionals at work, mind you, and eventually there’s a huge coincidence that’s a bit of a problem, one so large that even the author (through Maggie) is forced to comment on it — “Do you believe in God, Fell?”

   But other than that, unless you’re such a devout fan of hard-boiled mysteries that you never read anything else, this neat little mystery will go down awfully smooth.

— March 2002

[UPDATE] 08-19-008.   According to Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, M. C. Beaton is the primary mystery-writing pen name of Marion C. Gibbons, 1936- . (Gibbons is her married name, with the “C.” likely to be Chesney, her maiden name.)


   Before turning to mystery fiction, and writing as Marion Chesney, she was well-known and very popular as an author of regency romances. She’s also written books as by Sarah Chester (one romantic suspense novel in CFIV) and Jennie Tremaine (one additional romantic suspense novel).

   Other books under these last two names, or those she’s written as Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax and Charlotte Ward, are likely to be pure romances, and almost always historical fiction.

   Written as by Marion Chesney, but published too late to appear in CFIV, is a new series of Edwardian mysteries featuring Lady Rose Summer, the daughter of the Earl of Hadshire, and her companion in solving crimes, Captain Harry Cathcart, the son of a baron and an invalid from the Boer War who’s set up a private detective agency for the well-to-do:

      Snobbery with Violence (2003)
      Hasty Death (2004)
      Sick of Shadows (2005)
      Our Lady of Pain (2006)