Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart

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Written by Lory Widmer Hess

“The whole affair began so very quietly.”

With the first line of her first novel, Mary Stewart already proclaimed herself a sublimely intelligent storyteller, saying much in few words. Who can resist the temptation to read on and discover what the “whole affair” will turn out to be, why it began so quietly (but surely did not end so), and who is telling us about it in such perfectly paced syllables, just a couple of beats off from iambic pentameter?

Keep turning the pages, and you find yourself quickly absorbed in the “whole affair” along with Charity Selborne, an English war widow and former schoolteacher who thinks she’s going to enjoy a pleasant rest with a friend in Avignon. Instead, she becomes interested in the plight of a young boy at her hotel, and determined to protect him — but who is actually threatening him, and who can be trusted?

Sixty years after its original publication, Madam, Will You Talk? is now available again in the US thanks to Chicago Review Press, which has so far reprinted nine of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels in their Rediscovered Classics series. Popular though they were in their day, one might expect such fare — adventure stories about young women in exotic locales, with a dash of romance and the spice of danger — to have dated badly. But though certain manners and mores are clearly not of our time, the smart, active heroines of these novels endear them to us. No passive damsels in distress, they muster up the courage and daring to do extraordinary things (Charity, for example, puts us through some nail-biting car chases). Yet they remain emotionally accessible and fallible enough for us to participate in their adventures vicariously, without finding them impossibly superhuman.

Last summer I gobbled up five more of these entertainments, finding them perfect vacation reading: The Ivy TreeThis Rough MagicThe Moon-SpinnersNine Coaches  Waiting, and My Brother Michael. In each one our heroine is making a journey, usually alone, to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Southern France, Greece) where she expects to settle into a holiday or a new job. She then finds that there is something unsavory going on (smuggling, treason, identity theft, attempted murder, kidnapping) and becomes involved in trying to defeat the villain(s). Serious dangers to life and limb ensue, as she tries to rescue the victim/find the treasure/puzzle out the crime, but she comes through in the end, with a new love interest with whom she has made a connection in the midst of all the mayhem — not infrequently after having first having assumed him to be the villain of the piece.

While these novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail. They also are pleasantly literary, in the style established with Madam Will You Talk? — which has references to classic literature sprinkled liberally throughout, in addition to its finely but unobtrusively crafted language. This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The TempestNine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ TragedyThe Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, these stories are not gratuitously violent or exploitative. Sympathetic characters and intelligently constructed plots appeal to our hearts and minds, as well as our wish to be thrilled and excited. Stewart creates miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for fashioning wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I find to be one of her strongest and most atmospheric works. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures — and its burdens.

I said, ‘It’s this confounded country. It does things to one — mentally and physically and, I suppose, morally. The past is so living and the present so intense and the future so blooming imminent. The light seems to burn life into you twice as intensely as anywhere else I’ve known. I suppose that’s why the Greeks did what they did so miraculously, and why they could stay themselves through twenty generations of slavery that would have crushed any other race on earth’.

To summarize the plot of a Mary Stewart novel is to spoil many of its surprises, so I’ll just say that Camilla, traveling alone in Greece after the breakup of a bad relationship, gets into more than she’d bargained for when she takes an unusual opportunity to transport herself from Athens to Delphi. After she meets up with an Englishman hunting for some clues to still-unanswered questions around the death of his brother during the war, she definitely loses her right to complain that ‘Nothing ever happens to me.’ We are reminded to be careful what we wish for — the gods may be listening.

There is never much time in these novels for anything other than instantaneous romance, since the action moves at a pretty fast clip, and most of the time our hero and heroine are busy with pursuing evildoers and other distractions. One might argue that the intense situations they are thrown into causes them to quickly perceive some essential truths about their chosen partners; one might also recall that Mary Stewart herself immediately recognized her own future husband as ‘the one’ when she met him at a fancy-dress party, and married him three months later. Ultra-quick romance might be rare, but it does happen — and it’s no less believable than some of the colorful plots with which Stewart beguiles us, causing us to suspend disbelief for a spell through the force of emotional engagement. ‘The place for truth is not in the facts of a novel; it is in the feelings,’ she once said, and there we never feel short-changed or betrayed by her writing. She clearly believes in and cares for her characters, and makes us care for and with them too.

So if you’re looking for a quick, colorful read that won’t ask you to leave your brain at the door, do try Mary Stewart. She’ll take you for a marvelous ride.

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Lory Widmer Hess shares her reading journey at The Emerald City Book Review.