A Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton St. Martin's Minotaur 276 pp., $24.95 Reviewed by David Marshall James Few mystery series protagonists keep readers on the watch for their return engagements the way M.C. Beaton's (Marion Chesney's) Agatha Raisin does. "Aggie" resides in a thatched-roof cottage in the English Cotswolds village of Carsley, but any similarities to that other Agatha's-- Christie's-- sleuth, Jane Marple, begin and end there. Aggie, who escaped the Birmingham slums to establish a successful public-relations agency, has reinvented herself as an equally prosperous private investigator, having found early retirement in Carsley a yawn. Her firm, located in nearby Mircester (fictitious, as is Carsley), is staffed by two seasoned men, a female secretary and, most recently, the youthful Toni Gilmour, who has pulled herself out of a bad situation, much as her mentor before her. Although her business ventures have proved golden, Aggie has landed in middle age with a thud, and a bum hip to show for it. In spite of her aches and pains, she remains vain, switching from flats to stiletto-heels if there's a chance she'll be brushing shoulders with a handsome gent. That roving eye leads her astray here, as she returns to her roots and takes on a P.R. assignment, publicizing a small village fete into a major hooplah, only because she's on the prowl for a "posh bloke" who's involved. The hooplah gets out of hand when a jam-tasting contest results in fatal LSD trips for two village ladies. So, who made the "marmy" barmy? Aggie's only too amenable to set her stilettoes stomping over that sticky wicket, considering she overhauled the fete, and the fellow she fancies is in the thick of it. The plot jels like homemade jam as Aggie digs into her suspects' backgrounds. Meanwhile, people from her past pop in and out, among them loyal chum Sir Charles Fraith, who frequently crashes on her couch. Then, there are friendly former employees who've moved on to London and Cambridge. In Carsley, the ever-patient vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby, functions as a sort of mother figure to Aggie, although the latter isn't much of churchgoer, and Rev. Bloxby barely tolerates her. After all, Aggie is nothing if not direct, often in colorful language. She's fond of her brandy, drinks wine with her pub lunches, and is about to go mad because of the new national ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Beaton spoons up two juicy surprises toward the end of the novel. One involves Toni, while the other pertains to Aggie's ex-husband, James Lacey. The story as a whole proves a delight, jam-packed with colorful Cotswolds settings and plenty of humor. Beaton displays a deft hand with droll dialogue, including humorous British argot. As for Agatha, she's a pip. * * *
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