by Tom Warner (Best & Next Department)
Emmy-nominated actress Ashley Jensen stars as the titular snarky publicist-turned-amateur detective in what Acorn TV calls a “quintessentially British village mystery” series based on the bestselling books by M.C. Beaton, and the pilot episode movie and all three seasons of Agatha Raisin are now available to download or stream through Hoopla using your library card. Author M.C. Beaton (the pseudonym of Marion Chesney Gibbons) died in January 2020, so it seems fitting to take a look back at the adventures of her most popular fictional sleuth in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Carsely during these glorious summer days.
Now “Quintessentially British village mystery” means that this is your textbook “Cozy Mystery,” a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur offstage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. Agatha Raisin is guilty as charged on all these counts, but while M.C. Beaton’s mystery book “cozies” strike me as forgettable, cookie-cutter trifles, the television adaptations of her creations breath new life into timeworn cozy conventions. (Beaton’s other long-running mystery series, featuring Scottish constable Hamish Macbeth, was also turned into a BBC television series, starring Robert Carlyle, in 1995.) That’s due both to the screenwriters who adapted Ms. Beaton’s original stories (Stuart Harcourt, Chris Murray, Chris Neil and Julia Gilbert) as well as the impeccable ensemble cast, whose ranks include not only Ashley Jensen (whose previous credits include Extras, Catastrophe, Ugly Betty and Love, Lies & Records), but: Mathew Horne (Gavin & Stacey) as Agatha’s flamboyant personal assistant Roy Silver; Matt McCooey as easy-going DC Bill Wong; Jason Barnett as Agatha’s bumbling nemesis DCI Wilkes; Jamie Glover as Agatha’s handsome neighbor and love-interest James Lacey; Jason Merrells as womanizing aristocrat Sir Charles Fraith; Rhashan Stone as village vicar Jez Bloxby (a reimagining of Alf Bloxby in the books, here played by a black actor); Lucy Liemen as the vicar’s wife Sarah Bloxby; Katy Wix as Agatha’s housekeeper and sleuthing pal Gemma Simpson (called Doris Simpson in the novels) ; and Jodi Tyack as Toni Gilmour, who takes over from Gemma as Agatha’s housekeeper-sleuthing assistant in Season 3.
The 2014 pilot episode of Agatha Raisin was an adaptation of the first book in M.C. Beaton’s series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992). Having just retired from a high-powered career in London, Agatha decides to settle down in Carsely after hearing about a quiche competition. Used to the competitive business world of the big city, she of course cheats – buying a spinach quiche from a famous London quiche shop and entering it as her own. But when the judge dies from poisoning after tasting her quiche, Agatha sets out to find the poisoner and clear her own name; in the process, she decides she likes her newfound job of sleuthing.
Agatha’s character in the TV series is notably different from her depiction in the novels, and that’s a testament to Ashley Jensen’s innate charm and comic timing. Jensen’s Agatha is more complex than Beaton’s print version, with the actress adding a depth and vulnerability to the character. And while she’s from Birmingham in Beaton’s books, here she is from Scotland because, well, there’s no explaining away Jensen’s native Scottish accent. Other characters from the novels and some of the relationships between them are also notably different (Alf and Sarah are a much older white couple in the novels) in the TV series, as the actors enrich these characters with their own unique personalities, especially DCI Wilkes. Wilkes is not black in the books, but after seeing Jason Barnett’s charming portrayal it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing him.And then, of course, there’s the real star of the series: its setting. Like Doc Martin and Downtown Abbey, it’s the beautiful landscape that is just as important as the characters moving through it. Carsely may be a fictional town, but it is set in and filmed around the Cotswolds; this rural area of rolling hills, grassy meadows, thatched medieval houses, churches and stately homes built of local yellow limestone covers six counties in south central England and is considered the “honey-tinged heart of England.” And it’s just the kind of place a well-heeled (and Agatha is always well-heeled, no matter how inappropriately!) London publicist would retire to, though it takes some time for the brash big city outlier and the snooty, conservative villagers to get used to one another. And that’s part of the fun!
Murder, mayhem and mystery may abound around Carsely, but it’s always light-hearted and is never as dark or as bountiful as in the equally quaint neighboring villages of Oxfordshire, home to all those Midsomer Murders. If streaming is not your cup of tea, you can also check out Seasons 1 and 2 of Agatha Raisin on DVD and pick up them up via Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail.
And if (like me) you fall in love with Ashley Jensen, be sure to check out the savvy Scot in her series Love, Lies & Records, which is also available to download or stream on Hoopla or check out in DVD format from Pratt.
Watch the Agatha Raisin trailer (Acorn Media).
Watch the Love, Lies & Records trailer (Acorn TV).