Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

Posted September 15, 2014 by Lory in reviews / 14 Comments

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (Morrow, 1959)

Mary Stewart, The Ivy Tree (Morrow, 1962)

Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (Morrow, 1963)

Mary Stewart, This Rough Magic (Morrow, 1964) 

 

Mary Stewart romantic suspense

It’s always a great pleasure to discover an author whose books have somehow passed you by, especially if there are plenty of them. Such is the case with Mary Stewart, whose romantic suspense novels just never swam into my ken until now.

Fortunately, good books never go out of date. This summer I read four Stewarts in quick succession and found them effortlessly readable yet refreshingly literate. With exotic settings, independent heroines, and tricky plots, they make perfect vacation reading. And in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Gudrun’s Tights, here are some thoughts that I hope will interest those who haven’t yet discovered this wonderful author, as well as those who know and love her.

Each of these four books starts with a young woman, usually alone, making a journey to some beautiful, rather remote spot (Corfu, Northumberland, Alpine France, Crete) 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 naturally 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.

While the novels do follow a certain pattern, they are not formulaic. Each one is written in a distinctive voice and with precise attention to detail, which makes you feel as though you have really been to the places she describes. They also are pleasantly literary: This Rough Magic centers around an old house inhabited by a Shakespearean actor obsessed with The Tempest; Nine Coaches Waiting takes its title and organization from a quotation from The Revengers’ Tragedy; The Ivy Tree is named after an old song and has a strain of ancient folklore running through it. And while they are certainly suspenseful, they 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. These books create miniature worlds that live in our imaginations after the entertainment has finished, and leave us satisfied rather than empty.

The main quibble I have with Stewart is that I wish she would develop her romances more gradually. There tends to be a “boom” moment of falling in love without much apparent reason behind it, based on an acquaintance of mere days or even hours. I found this element required more suspension of disbelief than did some of the improbable and extreme situations.

Still, I enjoyed so much about her books that this was a minor issue for me. Now, for Mary Stewart Reading Week, I need to pick which novel to read next. I’m thinking of Touch Not the Cat (telepathic romance on an English estate), My Brother Michael (“a mysterious car journey to Delphi in the company of a charming but quietly determined Englishman”), or Airs Above the Ground (Vienna and Lipizzaner horses). Any recommendations?

Review copy source: Print books from library

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14 responses to “Suspense with Style: Four by Mary Stewart

  1. Great review! I'm reading Gabriel Hounds right now and loving it, of course. As of about halfway through the book, there is not a romantic prospect is sight and I just know that, boom! there's going to be a completely unexpected man on the scene.

  2. I liked Touch Not the Cat better than the other two (even though it's not as good as Nine Coaches Waiting). Have you ever read Thornyhold? That one's fun, too. Reading all these posts makes me want to pull out my Mary Stewart books and reread them all. 🙂

    • I liked Thornyhold, but it lacked some narrative drive. Nine Coaches Waiting was a blast! I didn't pick up Touch Not the Cat after all for this week, but I'm sure I will at some point.

  3. lyn

    I love the cover of TRM you've used. The dolphin & the mythology surrounding it adds so much to the story. I started Touch Not The Cat last night & I'm looking forward to getting back to it. MBM is also excellent, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

  4. What a wonderful and perceptive review! I'm a huge Mary Stewart fan (which begs the question, why haven't I reviewed more of her books?) At any rate, while I enjoy them all, I highly recommend Airs Above the Ground, which is one of my favorites.

  5. I'm so glad you discovered her! You've really beautifully described all the reasons why we love her. My Brother Michael is a gem too so I look forward to your thoughts.

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