Sunday, 02 December 2018 16:01

(Editor’s Note: We can never have enough of Agatha Raisin. The new series is the subject of Mystery Scene magazine’s cover story for our Winter issue. And here is an interview with actress Ashley Jensen, who brings to life the character of Agatha Raisin.)

Although she doesn’t resemble the Agatha Raisin character as depicted in M.C. Beaton’s popular novels, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen certainly captures the spirit of this amateur sleuth in the TVs series, now in its second season on Acorn TV.

In Beaton’s 29 novels about the former public relations who opts for early retirement then moves to a small village in the Cotswolds in England, Agatha is described as “short, dumpy with dark hair” and hardly glamorous.

That is not a description that even begins to describe the stylish, svelte, blonde, and, yes, glamorous Jensen.

“Well, I am short,” said Jensen during a telephone interview—one of many Jensen had back-to-back that day—punctuated by frequent laughter thanks to her easy sense of humor.

Physicality aside, Jensen perfectly brings to life Agatha’s character—prickly, nosy, unfiltered, confident, and a bit vulnerable. Agatha’s the kind of friend you want to hang out with every day because she would be fun to be with: drinking lots of wine together and being on top of all the gossip.

Jensen said she was drawn to Agatha because the character is so relatable.

“People can see themselves in her,” said Jensen, best known for her supporting roles in HBO’s Extras and ABC’s Ugly Betty. Jensen received two British Comedy Awards and a BAFTA nomination for her role in Extras. Her role in the 2007 Christmas Special earned her an Emmy Award nomination.

“Agatha’s just like us. We see her when she is a bit hung-over, when she’s had a bit too much wine, or getting dressed, or just not looking her best.

“At the same time, Agatha does what she wants and says what she wants. She doesn’t like to be proven wrong, especially by a man,” Jensen said.

“She’s a single lady in a small community. She’s strong and independent and successful. But still finding herself, which we all go through.”

Jensen also likes that Agatha has strong friendships. “These friendships bring out the best in each other,” Jensen said.

While Agatha first appeared in 1979’s The Quiche of Death, the Acorn series updates the character. “Ours is a more modern take on Agatha,” said Jensen. “She is very much a contemporary woman, a woman of her times.”

Jensen’s interpretation of Agatha not only appeals to fans but also to Marion Chesney, author M.C. Beaton’s real name. “Marion Chesney said she liked me and that was good enough for me,” said Jensen.

Viewers can see why the author is smitten with the actress’s performance. That wasn’t the case when Beaton’s series about Hamish Macbeth, the laconic, unambitious Highland village policeman, was filmed as a television series. Beaton was quoted in several publications as objecting that, in her opinion, Macbeth, played by actor Robert Carlyle, was turned into a brooding pot-smoker.

“Hamish Macbeth the TV show was so different from the books. I had a rotten time with the TV company,” Beaton was quoted in the Scottish Sun. “Whereas the present Agatha Raisin, I’m very pleased with. Agatha does not look like Ashley Jensen but in character she is just like her—she is a brilliant actress.”

Jensen said she has not read Beaton’s novels, preferring to bring her own interpretation to the character. “I love a good mystery but I don’t tend to read a lot of them just because of time. I can’t sit down long enough,” she said. “I do watch a lot of them on television.”

Still, there is something very appealing about a mystery fiction, she said. “That fish out of water—that’s Agatha,” she said, adding that she has real Paula Hawkins’ novels and those of British author Clare Donoghue, whom she considers a friend.

The backdrop of Britain’s Cotswolds also are appealing to viewers, she said. “It’s a beautiful area and we can show it off to American audiences,” she said.

Agatha Raisin did so well during its initial season that the second season is Acorn TV’s first sole commission. The second season features three 90-minute television movies—Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham, now streaming on Acorn TV; The Fairies of Fryfam debuting on Christmas Eve and The Curious Curate in late January 2019. To view visit Acorn TV.

(More coverage about Agatha Raisin television season is in the current issue of Mystery Scene.)

Jensen mainly is known for her high-profile supporting roles. The Agatha series is the first time she has been the lead. “I started at the bottom, one line, one scene, at a time. Now I feel a responsibility at being the captain of the ship.”

During our interview, she frequently named members of the television series’ crew, thanking them for their help. That attitude impressed Beaton, who commented in the Scottish Star, that Jensen “knows the name of everyone on that TV crew and bonds them together like a family.”

“It is a team thing,” said Jensen of the crew and various support members who work on the series. “We are all in this together.

”I can’t get ill. Too many people counting on me. I get a lot of sleep and take vitamins. Sometimes I drive around with vitamins.”

Photos: Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin. Photos courtesy Acorn TV

Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin
Oline H. Cogdill
Saturday, 01 December 2018 15:45

We always look forward to the announcement of the Grand Master, Raven, and Ellery Queen honorees by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA).

Usually we try to rewrite press releases, but not this time.

Martin Cruz Smith was awarded the 2019 Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America (MWA).

MWA’s Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.

Smith will receive his award at the 73rd Annual Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Martin Cruz Smith, the son of a jazz musician and a Native American chanteuse, is perhaps best known for his eight-novel series featuring Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park. That book was turned into an award-winning motion picture starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin.

Even before his breakout with the Arkady series, Smith had received two Edgar nominations for books in his Roman Gray series, Gypsy in Amber (1971) and Canto for a Gypsy (1972). Both books were originally published under his birth name, Martin Smith, but when he learned that there were six other Martin Smiths who wrote novels he adopted Cruz, his paternal grandmother's surname, to differentiate himself. Smith also received an Edgar nomination in 1978 for Nightwing, a standalone that drew upon his own tribal ancestry, and has written more than 30 novels in a career that spans nearly five decades.

“When I was a mere strip of a 'gunsel', I attended the 1971 Mystery Writers Edgar Award dinner,” Smith said when informed of the honor. “I was overwhelmed to be in the presence of talents like Dick Francis, Donald Westlake, and Ross Macdonald. Once again, I find myself in the company of wonderful mystery writers at the height of their talent. I'm knocked out, floored, and honored. Spasibo.”

The Raven Award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. Marilyn Stasio will receive the 2019 Raven Award.

Stasio has been the mystery critic for the New York Times Book Review (and other magazines) for 30 years—since 1988—with hundreds of books coming under her loving, unforgiving, eye. Whether her judgment is elegiac or brutal, when it comes to the mystery genre, a Stasio review is a thing to be treasured or feared, but always learned from.

Stasio commented, “Goodness, I feel like Sally Field. (‘Wow! You like me! You actually like me!’) When I think of the great people the MWA has honored in the past—people like Edward Gorey and Vincent Price—I want to duck behind the door. My only wish is that those great guys were still around to hand me the Raven, which I promise to treasure.”

Previous Raven winners include the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, Dru Ann Love, Kris Zgorski, Sisters in Crime, Margaret Kinsman, Kathryn Kennison, Jon and Ruth Jordan, Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Oline Cogdill, Molly Weston, The Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Chicago, Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis, Mystery Lovers Bookstore in Oakmont, PA, Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, MA, and The Poe House in Baltimore, MD.

The Ellery Queen Award was established in 1983 to honor “outstanding writing teams and outstanding people in the mystery-publishing industry.” This year the Board chose to honor Linda Landrigan.

Landrigan came to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in 1997 as an associate editor and has been its editor since 2002. Under her leadership, the magazine has not only continued to thrive but has also navigated dramatic changes in the publishing industry—she has overseen the introduction of AHHM in digital formats as well as the creation of a podcast series featuring audio recordings of stories from the magazine as well as interviews with authors.

On learning she would receive the Ellery Queen Award, Landrigan said, “This is such a great honor, and I am really humbled to be in the company of the other Ellery Queen Award recipients who have come before. At Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine we strive to publish the best mystery and crime stories to satisfy our readership. It’s gratifying that so many people are producing great stories and that so many people are eager to read them. I am happy that we can introduce new voices in the genre, and continue to offer our readers stories from their favorite authors as well. Thanks to MWA for this honor and for your support of the community of mystery writers, publishers, and readers.”

Previous Ellery Queen Award winners include Robert Pépin, Neil Nyren, Janet Rudolph, Charles Ardai, Joe Meyers, Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, Brian Skupin and Kate Stine, Carolyn Marino, Ed Gorman, Janet Hutchings, Cathleen Jordan, Douglas G. Greene, Susanne Kirk, Sara Ann Freed, Hiroshi Hayakawa, Jacques Barzun, Martin Greenburg, Otto Penzler, Richard Levinson, William Link, Ruth Cavin, and Emma Lathen.

The Edgar Awards, or “Edgars,” as they are commonly known, are named after MWA’s patron saint Edgar Allan Poe and are presented to authors of distinguished work in various categories. MWA is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime-writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre. The organization encompasses some 3,000 members including authors of fiction and nonfiction books, screen and television writers, as well as publishers, editors, and literary agents. For more information on Mystery Writers of America, please visit the website:

MWA Announces 2019 Grand Master, Raven, Ellery Queen Award Recipients
Mystery Scene
Thursday, 29 November 2018 16:37

Carrie Smith is the author of the Claire Codella novels centering on NYPD Detective Codella. In the first book, Claire is returning from cancer treatment and she encounters some jealousy (she’d solved a high profile case before taking sick leave). In all the books, Smith embraces characters of all stripes and really delves into them, creating the kind of character-driven police novel that I as a reader truly enjoy. I also see echoes of a favorite writer of mine, Lillian O’Donnell, whose novels, beginning in the '70s, traced the path of a female cop and eventual NYPD detective as she encounters sexism as well as skepticism on the job. Both these characters get the job done with smarts and compassion.

You have established a wonderful series character in Claire, and now you are moving away from her. Are you done telling her story?

For the moment, but not forever. Claire is by now an old friend and I have no intention to abandon her. She has evolved dramatically since Chapter 1 of Silent City, when she returned to the NYPD after a 10-month battle with cancer and began to prove herself all over again. She’s confronted demons of her past, solved three high-profile cases, and reached a new place in her personal life. But there are unanswered questions, too. Who will replace her nemesis, Lieutenant McGowan? Will her relationship with Detective Brian Haggerty grow stronger, or will it founder? Can she keep up her breakneck pace without another health crisis? There’s more to Claire’s story, and there are endless pockets of New York City to take her into, but I feel that I’ve left her in a good spot while I challenge myself with a new set of characters dealing with different issues relevant today.

I know you have written a standalonecan you tell me about it? Is it a thriller? Traditional detective story? Police story?

The new book is a fast-paced thriller. A young hotel employee, Grecia Galindo, has been framed for theft and offered the dubious choice between facing criminal charges (that would lead to her deportation) and enduring sexual harassment. Grecia courageously refuses to accept exploitation, and she is on her way to see her attorney when she is abducted from a Manhattan street. On the same morning, her experienced attorney is murdered. The attorney’s fiery young associate, Riley Wittman, discovers her body and narrowly avoids becoming the killer’s second victim. Now these two very different young women must fight for their lives. To survive, they’ll need to confront powerful adversaries, unravel a conspiracy, and face their own pasts in order to embrace the future.

While this is the intimate, elemental story of two women’s harrowing trials, their stories are inspired by the larger cultural shifts happening now: the plight of undocumented people and the traumatic experiences of women who have come forward to tell their stories in the #MeToo movement.

What's important to you in telling a story? What is the key your novel will revolve around?

I have a few non-negotiables when I start a new crime novel. I need a cast of diverse, complex characters with credible and surprising motivations. I need a context—a world—that I can expose for readers, one they may find unfamiliar but intriguing. And I need a purpose that transcends plot.

My purpose in this new novel is to examine the concepts of justice and identity. Grecia Galindo and Riley Wittman are very different, but they ask themselves the same questions: Are they, and should they be, limited by the circumstances of their birth? Must they follow in the path of their parents? Is justice ever truly blind?

Can you talk about your writing process? I have met and talked with so many authors through the years, but have never met any one who approaches the task as you do.

I had to laugh at this question, because as I read and began to address it, I was walking down Riverside Drive employing the process you’ve alluded to. I do not like to sit at a computer and stare at the screen as I compose a first draft. I have trouble pulling ideas out of my head when I’m in such a static position. I like to write in motion. In a recent New York Times review of two new book on Nietzsche, the reviewer, Stephen Smith, noted that “Almost all of the great philosophers—Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau—were walkers whose ideas germinated only in motion.” While I certainly don’t count myself in their company, I do know that my best ideas emerge while I am walking. I’ve drafted three Claire Codella novels on the Notes app on my iPhone. I email the notes to myself, download them into Word files, and only then do I sit at the computer. The fun part of writing is the editing. That is where you get to shape and mold, like a word sculptor.

You came late to your writing career, what preconceptions did you have entering the world of publishing? What have you learned since Silent City was published?

Actually, I came to publishing pretty early the first time. I was 23 when my first novel, a literary novel, was published by Simon and Schuster. Back then, I was too young to understand how to handle my good fortune. Now, I’m far more realistic about what to expect. Not only is it difficult even for talented writers to get published, but it’s even harder to stay published book after book. Your career is largely dependent on your own efforts to promote yourself. I am grateful to have an audience, and my biggest joy now is connecting with readers and other writers. My expectations are far more realistic.

Who is inspirational to you as a writer? What other writers have helped you on your journey?

I am a very eclectic reader, but some of the writers I tend to go back to again and again are Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), PD James, Patricia Highsmith, and Agatha Christie.

I have been helped by many people in the crime writing community, but a few stand out. First and foremost, SJ Rozan who has been a mentor and friend since I began writing Silent City. Wendy Corsi Staub has generously opened many doors for me (and been a riotously fun companion at many Bouchercons). Kristopher Zigorsky recognized and drew people’s attention to the uniqueness of the Codella series. And of course, Aunt Agatha’s was a huge supporter.

Difficult question—what is your favorite book, and why?

I’m going to say The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book, published in 1986, was prescient—a startling reminder that our rights are as thin as the paper they are written on. Margaret Atwood never settles for lazy, predictable descriptions. And I admire the fact that she is a genre writer—one who deserves more acclaim than she’s received.

Carrie Smith is the author of the Claire Codella Mysteries from Crooked Lane Books, including Silent City, Forgotten City, and Unholy City. She is also the author of a literary novel Forget Harry. She is the recipient of three Hopwood Awards from the University of Michigan, a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Killer Nashville’s Reader’s Choice Award. She is also a two-time finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award and a finalist in Nimrod Magazine’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. By day, Carrie is senior vice president and publisher of Benchmark Education Company. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her spouse and college-age twins.

Carrie Smith
Robin Agnew