After a home dye job ruins her hair, Agatha Raisin, the prickly yet lovable amateur sleuth, turns to the wonderful new hairdresser in the neighboring town for help. And as Agatha soon learns, Mr. John is as skilled at repairing her coiffure as he is at romancing her heart. But the charming Mr. John isn't all he appears to be. According to gossip around the salon and the village, some of his former clients seem to be afraid of him. Could Mr. John really be a ruthless blackmailer? When a murderer strikes at the busy salon, Agatha must discover the truth and the killer's identity before it's too late ...
About the Author
In 2006, M.C. was the British guest of honor at Bouchercon.
Read an Excerpt
Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
THE weather was tropical. And this was England and this was Evesham in the Cotswolds. Agatha Raisin drove into the car-park at Merstow Green, turned off the air-conditioning, switched off the engine and braced herself to meet the wall of soupy heat which she knew would greet her the minute she stepped out of the car.
Like many, she had decided that all the scares about the greenhouse effect were simply lies made up by eco-terrorists. But this August had seen clammy, sweaty days followed by monsoon thunderstorms at night. Most odd.
Agatha groaned as she left her car and walked across to the parking-ticket machine. What a hell of a day to decide to get one's hair tinted!
She returned to her car and pasted the ticket on the window and then bent down and squinted at herself in the driving-mirror. Her hair was still dark brown but now streaked with purple.
Agatha had gone into a mild depression following her "last case." Mrs. Agatha Raisin fancied herself to be a detective to rival the fictional ones like Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. She was a stocky middle-aged woman with good legs, a round face and small bearlike eyes which looked suspiciously out at the world. Her hair had always been her pride, thick and brown and glossy.
But only that week she had discovered grey hairs, nasty grey hairs appearing all over. She had bought one of those colour rinses but it had turned the grey purple. "Go to Mr. John," advised Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife. "His place is in the High Street in Evesham. He's supposed to be very good. They say he's a wizard at tinting hair."
So Agatha had made the appointment and here she was in Evesham, a town situated some ten miles from her home village of Carsely.
The cynics say Evesham is famous for dole and asparagus. Situated beside the river Avon in the Vale of Evesham, the Garden of England, well-known for its nurseries, orchards, and, of course, asparagus, Evesham nonetheless can present itself to the visitor who comes to see its historical buildings as a down-at-heel town. Despite the increasing population, shops keep closing up and the boards over the windows are decorated with old Evesham scenes by local artists, so that sometimes it seems a town of pictures and thrift shops. Enormous fecund women trundle push-chairs with small children. The fashion they favour is leggings topped by a baggy blouse. As columnist and TV celebrity Ann Robinson said, she thought leggings came along with push-chairs and babies.
Agatha sometimes thought that a lot of the clothes shops closed down because the buyers would not look out of the window at the size of the female population and stocked only up to size sixteen instead of up to size twenty-two.
She walked over to the High Street, not even stopping to look at the magnificent bulk of the old churches. Agatha was not interested in history as was James Lacey, the love of her life, her neighbour, who was off once more on his travels, leaving his cottage deserted and Agatha depressed and with grey hairs on her head.
The hairdresser's was simply called Mr. John. Mrs. Bloxby had urged Agatha to make sure she got Mr. John in person.
And there it was, glittering in the heat of the High Street, a discreet shop frontage with MR. JOHN emblazoned in curly brass letters over the door.
Agatha pushed open the door and went in. No air-conditioning, of course. This was Britain and there were too many recent memories of cold summers for shopkeepers to decide to put in air-conditioning.
A receptionist marked off Agatha's name in the book and called to a thin, pimply girl to escort Agatha to the salon. Agatha began to wish she had not come. She trudged through to a room at the back and the girl said she would fetch Mr. John.
Agatha gazed sullenly at her reflection in the mirror. She felt old and frumpy.
Then suddenly behind her in the mirror, a vision appeared and a pleasant voice said, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Raisin. I'm Mr. John."
Agatha blinked. Mr. John was tall and very, very handsome. He had thick blond hair and very bright blue eyes, startlingly blue, as blue as a kingfisher's wing. His face was lightly tanned.
"Now what have we here," he said.
"We have purple hair," snapped Agatha, feeling diminished in front of this handsome vision.
"It's easily remedied. Would you also like me to style your hair?"
Agatha, who usually kept her hair short, had let it grow quite long. She shrugged. In for a penny, in for a pound. "Why not?"
"You're not local, are you?" Mr. John stirred the hair tint with strong, well-manicured hands.
"No, I'm from London." Agatha had no intention of telling Mr. John or anyone about her childhood background in a Birmingham slum. "I had my own public relations business and sold up and took early retirement and moved to Carsely."
"Yes, very pleasant."
"And does your husband like it?"
"My husband is dead."
His hands hovered above her head. "Raisin. Raisin? That name rings a bell."
"It should do. He was murdered."
"Ah, yes, I remember. How terrible for you."
"I'm over it now. I hadn't seen him in years anyway."
"Well, an attractive lady like yourself won't remain single for long."
"I am sure you mean well and that's what you say to all your dreary customers," said Agatha tetchily, "but I am well aware of what I look like."
"Ah, but I haven't done your hair before. By the time I've finished with you, you'll be fighting them off with clubs."
Agatha suddenly laughed. "You're very sure of your skill."
"I have every reason to be."
"So if you're that good, why Evesham?"
"Why not? I like Evesham. The people are nice. I am king here. I might be lost among the competition in London. There you are. Now, I'll set the timer. Sharon, a coffee and some magazines for Mrs. Raisin."
A woman had entered and was sitting in the chair alongside Agatha. "Ready to have your colour done again, Maggie?" Mr. John greeted her.
"If you think so," said Maggie, gazing up at him with adoring eyes.
"Did your husband like the new style?"
"He doesn't like anything about me." Maggie's voice had taken on a querulous moan. "Insults from morning to night. I tell you, John, if it weren't for you bucking me up, I'd kill myself."
"There, now. You'll feel better when I've finished with you."
As Agatha waited for the tint to take effect and more customers were dealt with, some by a couple of assistants, Agatha was amazed at the personal revelations that were poured into the hairdressers' ears.
She covertly watched Mr. John as he moved about, admiring his athletic body and his blond hair, and oh, those blue, blue eyes.
Agatha began to feel alive for the first time in weeks.
The timer rang and she was escorted through to a hand-basin and the tint was washed out. Then back to Mr. John, who began to put her hair up in rollers.
"I thought it would be a blow-dry."
"I'm going to put your hair up ... Agatha. It is Agatha, isn't it?"
A less glorious-looking hairdresser would have been told sharply that it was Mrs. Raisin. Agatha nodded.
"You'll love it."
"I've never had my hair up before. I've always had it short."
He clicked his tongue. "Ladies who don't think as much of themselves as they should, always get their hair cut short. Show me a woman with her hair cut to the bone and I'll show you an example of really low self-worth. Tell you what, if you don't like it, I'll take it down again and cut it."
Agatha reluctantly gave her approval although she could feel sweat trickling down her body. How did Mr. John keep so cool?
She was just beginning to feel she had been under the hot drier for hours when she was rescued and taken back to Mr. John.
As he worked busily away, Agatha looked in delight as her new appearance emerged. Her hair was glossy and brown once more, but swept up in a French pleat and then arranged around her square face in a way that made it looked thinner. She forgot about the heat. She smiled up at Mr. John in sheer gratitude.
It was only when she was walking back down the High Street, squinting in shop windows to admire her reflection, that she realized she had not made another appointment. But Agatha had mostly done her own hair, getting it cut in London on her occasional visits.
Once home, she opened all the doors and windows to try to let in some fresh air. Her two cats darted out into the garden and then promptly lay down on the grass, lethargic in the sun.
She looked at her silent phone. To add to her depression, it never seemed to ring. Her friend, Detective Sergeant Bill Wong was on holiday; Sir Charles Fraith, with whom she had been involved on a couple of cases, was abroad somewhere; James Lacey was God only knew where; and even Roy Silver, her former employee, had not troubled to ring.
Then she remembered there was to be a meeting of the Carsely Ladies' Society that evening. A good opportunity to show off her new hair-style.
Mrs. Bloxby was hosting the society at the vicarage and because of the heat had set out chairs and tables in the vicarage garden.
Agatha's hair-style was much admired. "Where did you go?" asked Mrs. Friendly, a plump, cheerful woman who usually lived up to her name. She was a relative newcomer to the village and hailed as an antidote to that other relative newcomer, Mrs. Darry, who was nibbling a piece of cake with rabbitlike concentration.
"Mr. John in Evesham," said Agatha.
To her surprise, Mrs. Friendly's face creased up like that of a hurt baby. "I wouldn't go there," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper.
"Why?" Agatha stared rudely at Mrs. Friendly's hair, which was a mousy brown and hanging in damp wisps round her hot face.
"Nothing," muttered Mr. Friendly. "One hears stories."
"About Mr. John?"
"Must talk to Mrs. Bloxby." Mrs. Friendly moved away.
Agatha stared after her and then shrugged. She was joined by Miss Simms, Carsely's unmarried mother and secretary of the society. "You look drop-dead gorgeous, Mrs. Raisin." Agatha had long ago given up asking other members to call her by her first name. They all seemed to enjoy the old-fashioned formality of second names. Miss Simms was wearing a brief pair of shorts with a halter-top and her usual spiked heels. "Where did you go?"
"Mr. John in Evesham."
"Oh, I went there once to get my hair done. I was bridesmaid at my sister Glad's wedding. He did it ever so pretty, but I didn't like him."
"Awful patronizing, he was. Gushed around the richer customers."
Agatha shrugged. "It doesn't really matter what a hairdresser's like, does it?"
"To me it does. I mean to say, I don't like anyone I don't like touching me."
The meeting was called to order. They were to give one of their concerts over at Ancombe. Agatha's heart sank. Ladies' Society concerts were truly awful, long evenings of shrill singing and bad sketches.
Mrs. Darry piped up, her eyes gleaming in her ferrety face. She was wearing a tweed skirt, blouse and tweed jacket but seemed unaffected by the heat. "Why doesn't Mrs. Raisin ever volunteer to do anything?"
"Why don't you?" snapped Agatha.
"Because I am doing the teas."
"I have no talent," said Agatha.
Mrs. Darry gave a shrill laugh. "Neither do any of the others, but that doesn't stop them."
"Really," protested Mrs. Bloxby, "that was unkind."
Miss Simms, who had volunteered to do her impersonation of Cher, glared. "Jealous cow," she said.
"I've a good mind to let you do the teas yourselves," said Mrs. Darry.
There was a silence. Then Agatha said, "I'll do it."
"Good idea," said Miss Simms.
Mrs. Darry got to her feet. "Then if you don't need my services, I'm going home."
She stalked out of the garden.
Agatha bit her lip. She didn't want to be bothered catering for a bunch of women in all this heat.
The depression which had lifted because of her visit to the hairdresser came down around her again like a black cloud. This is your life, Agatha Raisin. Trapped in a Cotswold village, cut off from excitement, cut off from adventure, doing teas for a bunch of boring women.
She trudged home afterwards. There did not seem to be a breath of air.
She opened all the windows. She looked at the silent phone. Could anyone have rung when she was out? She dialled 1571 for the Call Minder. "You have one message," said the carefully elocuted voice of the computer. "Would you like to hear it?"
"Of course I would, you silly bitch," growled Agatha.
There was a silence and then the voice said primly, "I did not hear that. Would you like to hear your message?"
There was a click and then the well-modulated tones of Sir Charles Fraith sounded down the line, "Hullo, Aggie. Fancy dinner tomorrow?"
Agatha brightened. Although she had been wary of Charles because of a one-night stand when they had both been in Cyprus, a night of sex which had seemed to mean very little to him, the thought of going out to dinner and showing off her new hair-style appealed greatly.
She dialled his number and got his Call Minder and left a message asking him to call for her at eight o'clock the following evening.
Her depression once more lifted, she went upstairs and had a bath and went to bed. She had left her hair pinned up, but as she lay on her hot pillow the pins bored into her head. At last she rose and took all the pins out and went back to bed, tossing and turning all night in the suffocating heat. Thunder rolled and the rain came down about two in the morning but did nothing to freshen the air.
When she rose in the morning, it was to find her hair was a disaster, damp with heat, and dishevelled with all the tossing about.
As soon as she knew the salon would be open, she phoned Mr. John's receptionist to see if she could have an appointment for that day. "I am so sorry, Mrs. Raisin," said the receptionist on a rather smug note. "Mr. John is fully booked."
"Put him on."
"I beg your parding?"
"I said let me talk to him ... now!"
"Oh, very well."
"Agatha!" Mr. John welcomed her like an old friend.
"I've got a dinner date and my hair is a wreck. Could you possibly fit me in?"
"I would like to help you out. Let me see. Give me the book, Josie."
There was a rustling of pages and then he came back on the phone. "You had your hair washed yesterday, so what I could do is just put it in rollers and then pin it up, but it would need to be five o'clock."
Agatha thought quickly. She would have plenty of time to get her hair done, get back home and washed and changed in time for Charles. "Lovely," she said. "I'll be there."
She then went up to the bedroom and swung open the doors of the wardrobe. What to wear? There was that little black dress she hadn't worn since Cyprus. He had liked it. She tried it on. It hung loose on her body. How odd, thought Agatha, that depression could do so effectively what all those diets and exercise had not. She had lost weight.
She decided to drive into Mircester and look for something new.
The steering-wheel of her car scorched her hands and she was up out of the village and speeding along the Fosse before the air-conditioning worked.
Mircester shimmered under ferocious heat. She was able to find a parking place without difficulty. A lot of people seemed, to have decided to stay at home. Agatha put on her sunglasses and squinted up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. She made her way to Harris Street off the main square, which boasted a line of expensive boutiques.
She went in and out of one hot shop after another until she felt she could not bear to try on one more dress. Perhaps it would be better to settle for one of her old dresses. It might be a bit loose but that would be all to the good, for any restaurant they went to would not have air-conditioning.
Agatha had just decided to forget about the whole thing when, looking along an alley which led off Harris Street and down to the abbey, she noticed the weekly market was in full swing. She would buy some fresh vegetables for salad. Once she was in the market and heading for the vegetable stalls, she noticed several stalls full of brightly coloured clothes. In one of them, a dress caught her eye. It was of fine scarlet cotton with a design of white lotus flowers. It had a cool, flowing line. Agatha fingered it. An Indian trader appeared at her elbow. "Nice dress," he said.
Agatha hesitated and then asked, "How much?"
Again Agatha hesitated. It was very cheap. It might wrinkle or even fall apart. She had been prepared to spend a couple of hundred pounds. "Tell you what," said the trader wearily, "you can have it for twelve."
Excerpted from Agatha Raisin and the Wizard of Evesham by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 1999 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"M.C. Beaton, aka Marion Chesney, spins another tale of mystery and droll humor."RT Book Reviews "While her neighbor and sometime love interest James Lacey gallivants on the continent, Agatha (Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist, LJ 9/1/97) grows bored in the English village of Carsely. After witnessing the fearful reactions of several women to her choice of a talented and charismatic new hairdresser in nearby Evesham, she's ready to attach some nefarious plot to the man. With the help of friend Sir Charles, she begins nosing about, purposely leaving herself open to possible blackmail and economic exploitation. Her plans backfire when someone kills the hairdresser and torches his home. Another delightful cozy featuring Cotswolds surroundings, a bit of history, and buoyant characters, this will fit well in any collection."Library Journal "Agatha Raisin is her same unlovable, yet lovable self - snapping at everyone, nasty to most, and yet so willing to please....Agatha embodies the characteristics of many middle-aged women who feel that life is passing them by. There is no equivalent to Agatha, with her acid tongue, in all of the mystery world....Long live Agatha Raisin!"The Mystery Reader "What makes readers love Agatha Raisin?...Somehow this cranky middle-aged dame's many flaws only make her more appealing."Booklist "[Beaton's] imperfect heroine is an absolute gem!"Publishers Weekly "All of the quaintness of Agatha Christie but with modern twists to keep you even more entertained.... M. C. Beaton weaves a tale that will delight Christie fans as well as lure in a whole new crowd to the cozy subgenre."ReviewingtheEvidence.com