The Witches' Tree by M. C. Beaton is the 28th book in the Agatha Raisin series.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of cantankerous British crime buster Agatha Raisin, who has transcended on-the-page fame to achieve small-screen infamy in recent years. To commemorate the occasion, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author M. C. Beaton—heralded as the “Queen of Crime” (The Globe and Mail)—returns to her venerable series with the release of its 28th entry, The Witches’ Tree.
Befitting of her stature, Agatha Raisin—a retired PR agent-turned-private detective—makes a fashionably late appearance (otherwise known as “Chapter 2”). Instead, readers are first introduced to aging ambassador Sir Edward Chumble and his much younger (and far less diplomatic) wife, Tiffany. The two are hosting a dinner party at their home in the Cotswolds that gathers together a small-yet-eclectic group of friends and acquaintances, including the new vicar from the nearby parish of St. Edmund. After all, inviting the vicar seems the thing to do, if reading about life in such quaint surroundings has taught them anything. But good intentions be damned, the night is fraught with tension, making The Witches’ Tree’s opening reference to another indomitable Agatha all the more appropriate:
The evening was not going well. The late Agatha Christie would have been amazed to learn that she was destined to be the ruin of some genteel dinner parties. Otherwise intelligent people, after a move to a village in the Cotswolds, can become keen to “do the village thing,” getting ideas of what it should be like from her detective stories.
Indeed, Sumpton Harcourt newcomers Rory and Molly Harris—the vicar and his wife, recent transplants from the East End of London—are so disenchanted that they use the excuse of needing to relieve their catsitter to escape the Chumbles’ insufferable gathering. On the foggy drive home, Molly boldly declares that the village is “the arsehole of the world” (a sentiment that will be repeated by others). That opinion is downgraded moments later when the two discover the body of Margaret Darby hanging from a gnarled old wood at the edge of town known as the witches’ tree. While local authorities first suspect suicide, it soon becomes clear that this is a case of murder. But who would have cause to do the elderly spinster in? And why?
Sir Edward would love nothing more than to get the answers to those questions and then revel in his own dramatic, Poirot-like denouement. Much to the dismay of the police, he solicits Agatha Raisin to investigate the crime and report back to him. Despite limited funding, she eagerly accepts this proposition—mostly because it’s a legitimate excuse to indulge her own curiosity.
Though Agatha has a seasoned staff of sleuths—including the lust-inducing Toni, who is both envied and admired—on the payroll, most of her inquiries are done in the company of one of two men: her sometimes lover, Sir Charles Fraith, and her ex-husband, James Lacey. There’s an undeniable undercurrent of desperation and desire to these dynamics, which both heightens the stakes—they’re plenty high to begin with considering the rapidly growing body count—and exposes Agatha’s vulnerabilities.
The emergence of a potential paramour—the vicar’s brother, Guy—further exacerbates this conflict:
Agatha had a hurried bath and then dressed and rushed off to a beauty salon in Evesham to be … dewerewolfed. Her legs didn’t really need waxing again, but she had them done anyway. She decided to keep her pubic hair, having read an article that men who liked shaved women were closet paedophiles. Every stray hair was plucked from her upper lip and her eyebrows were thinned. Agatha had always believed that the more hard work you put into your appearance before a date, then the more chance it had of being successful, despite the fact that she had been proved wrong, time after time.
Beyond potential bedmates (and those aforementioned party poopers), there’s a quirky cast of characters that includes a coven of witches, a pot-smoking senior citizen, and a 40-something brother and sister duo intent on chasing perpetual youth. Serviceable for entertainment, they also provide occasional enlightenment. While Agatha is the focal point, Beaton alternates perspective judiciously throughout the narrative. Though the transitions are sometimes jarring, this strategy allows the author to explore how perceptions and realities are often at odds with one another—and the needless misunderstandings that result.
Much like the village itself, Agatha lacks the cozy charms of a more traditional protagonist. Rather, she’s impulsive, profane, frequently inebriated, and unabashedly horny (“I wish someone would rub something on my genitals”). She also questions her cause nearly as much as she advances it, though she can never quite stop caring enough to actually quit. But these idiosyncrasies—and the insecurities that drive them—only serve to make Agatha more “real” than many of her crime fiction contemporaries. Consequently, the things that run the risk of being off-putting to readers are also the ones that ultimately sustain us. After all, it’s hard not to root for somebody who’s so perfectly imperfect—even if her middle-aged melodramas sporadically detract from the mysteries at hand.
M. C. Beaton has long been a masterful mixologist of murder and mayhem whose creative cauldron sparkles with flavor and flair. The Witches’ Tree is an intoxicating (and subtly seasonal) concoction that goes down dangerously easy but packs enough of a punch to ensure that you’re still thinking about it the morning after.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.