I Can't Stop Reading Mary Stewart, Retro Queen of Romantic Suspense

In Depth

If you’re looking to finish out the summer with something entertaining, compellingly dated and precisely worded, might I suggest Mary Stewart, the midcentury queen of the page-turner, pioneer of the romantic suspense novel?

Stewart was born Mary Rainbow, in Scotland, the daughter of a clergyman. “We were so isolated in a small country village that one just read. That was the great amusement. You played games, I suppose, in the evenings, or you read,” she told one interviewer. She married a geologist she met at a costume party on V-E Day, and launched her writing career with what might be the most wonderfully titled book of all time: 1954’s Madam, Will You Talk? (Entire rainy summer afternoons could be passed repeating Madam, Will You Talk? into a mirror.) It’s about a young widow named Charity who goes for an Avignon holiday and meets a nervous young man named David. Supposedly he’s on the run from his father, newly acquitted of murder. When Charity bumps into the father, she takes it upon herself to shield the boy from discovery—but does she have the villain pegged right?

Stewart’s blend of mystery and romance quickly caught on, and by the time she was interviewed by the New York Times in 1979, she’d sold something like 25 to 30 million books in America. She contributed to the midcentury Gothic craze, with its seas of breathless stories of frightened young women in great spooky mansions navigating mysteries and old family secrets. Most of her books are still in print, not that the modern Stateside covers do them justice. The vivid 60s-era paperback covers from Fawcett Crest do a much better job of teasing the suspenseful contents. These aren’t the grimy, earthy American pulps of the same period. These books are like eavesdropping on posh elderly Brits in the lobby of some fancy European hotel—but in an entertaining way. Her writing is sharp, managing a ratatat cadence even while flirting with the purple.

Let’s take 1958’s Nine Coaches Waiting. It’s the story of Linda, a young woman with a French mother who lived in Paris until her parents were killed in a plane crash, when she was sent to a dismal English orphanage. Pretty much done with England, she takes a job as a governess to a nine-year-old boy, a fellow orphan named Philippe, a wee comte whose paralyzed uncle is managing his estates. They’re in a giant chateau. Here’s how Philippe’s villainous guardian is introduced:

I thought, watching her, she’s afraid of him…. Then I told myself sharply not to be a fool. This was the result of Daddy’s intriguing build-up and my own damned romantic imagination. Just because the man looked like Milton’s ruined archangel and chose to appear in the hall like the Demon King through a trap door, it didn’t necessarily mean that I had to smell sulphur.

Our plainly-named heroine sternly refuses to entertain Gothic silliness—but of course, her instincts are right, after all. After a couple of suspicious accidents, Linda becomes convinced that this wan little kid is in danger and she must protect him from his own family. Unfortunately, in the meantime, she’s fallen in love with the Demon King’s son Raoul. But can she trust him?

Stewart’s opening lines are lessons in catching a reader’s eye—things like “The whole affair began so very quietly,” and “I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport,” and “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it,” and “I met him in the street called Straight,” and “In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.” In particular, 1964’s This Rough Magic—which follows out-of-work actress Lucy around Corfu, and contains a dolphin as a supporting character who of course rescues the Lucy in the end—is packed with great turns of phrase. For instance, Lucy describes a castle: “It would have taken Dali and Ronald Searle, working overtime on alternate jags of mescal and Benzedrine, to design the interior of the Castello dei Fiori.” No too-stupid-to-live innocent wandering the grounds in her chemise, this one.

And here’s Charity of Madam, Will You Talk? making use of some skills she picked up from her dead husband, an R.A.F. pilot and a race-car driver. She leads David’s father on a chase all the way to Marseilles:

A Bentley, I thought savagely, braking hard. It would be. Something that could give me a fairly alarming chase, unless I did something drastic to it first. I slipped out of the car, with thoughts of tyre-slashing, taking sparking-plugs, and other acts of thuggery storming through my mind. But there was a garage at the hotel, and who knew what spares might be available? As I stumbled across the stones to the grey car I thought wildly. Not the rotor-arm, for the same reason—and I had nothing to slash tyres with, anyway…. The hood was unlocked, and I lifted it, with half an eye on the road behind me.

It’s easy to underestimate how groundbreaking her work was, combining adventure and mystery with romance in books built on female protagonists. And Stewart herself was retiring when asked about all this, by the way: “It was the kind of thing I would have liked reading, that’s really what made me choose it. Like a lot of the Buchan stories, I wanted it to be out of doors, mostly out of doors,” she told interviewer Jenny Brown. “I’m happiest not with conversation pieces in a house or anything like that. So it was out of doors, it was an adventure, and because this was a very cold January in the north of England, I wanted it to be in a nice, hot country, in the sun.”

Stewart was writing bestsellers in an era dominated by Gothics—descendants of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, full of handsome but unknowable and maybe cruel men and secrets. So many secrets! She’s often mentioned alongside Victoria Holt, and it’s true that she often plays with the lover-as-hero-or-villain trope. But her work feels just a bit different. The appeal of the gothic is the thrill of vicarious helplessness—one long, erotic swoon. Hence all those panting heroines in nightgowns. (Not a criticism, to be clear. I love that shit.) Stewart’s protagonists are instead a fascinating, specifically midcentury kind of aspirational. They’re not coupled up at the beginning of the book—that was part of Stewart’s trademark, bouncing her heroines off some slightly alarming man who turns out to be a trustworthy partner. As you close the book, you get the sense each character is sailing off into a life of stylish young matronhood, full of cocktails and smart housekeeping and holidays in the South of France.

They’re also sharp as tacks, and that’s the point. They’re unremarkable women dropped into some gothic plot and forced to make do, and they always succeed magnificently. The hero lends a hand, but the core of the narrative is the heroine’s—often previously untested—steel spine. Stewart in fact took issue with an interviewer who characterized her characters as confident: “They’re not confident, you know. My first heroine was I suppose very much like me, scared of everything. But she had to get through whatever happened and she did.”

Stewart is pulling off a pretty neat narrative trick, here. “What Stewart understood and exploited when she made each of these heroines a detective in the solution of the mystery was the natural affinity between the romance and the mystery,” scholar Pamela Regis argues in her Natural History of the Romance Novel. And so as her heroines unravel whatever mystery they’ve found themselves in, it “helps to illuminate [the hero’s] personality. It helps the heroine make a decision about the courtship as well,” Regis adds. Before you commit to a life with someone, you have to do some sleuthing about their character. In Nine Coaches Waiting, Linda pieces together who’s trying to kill the kid, she sees Raoul’s true character.

Then there are all the literary touches. Nine Coaches Waiting might as well be titled Jane Eyre, But If It Was in France, With More Attempted Murder. This Rough Magic, set on Corfu, is practically a tribute to The Tempest. Every chapter in her books begins with some quote from literature. One imagines that among Stewart’s readers were many well-read women who’d maybe had a taste of freedom in the wartime era before being shoved and padlocked into postwar conformity. That, and bright high schoolers, trapped in institutions run by adults and reading everything they could get their hands on to pass the time.

Stewart is particularly beloved by romance writers and fans. It’s not merely that she was among the first to combine mystery and romance, helping spawn those all those subgenres starring cops and soldiers and detectives and frankly a lot of paranormals, too. If you had to pick a single person to credit with the existence of the modern contemporary romance, you’d probably have to go with du Maurier, thanks to her 1938 classic Rebecca, because half of the stuff Harlequin/Mills & Boon published before 1985 or so reads like fanfic. But Stewart also deserves credit for her influence on a generation of writers who’d play a part in pioneering the modern romance novel, with its more powerful, self-confident and assertive heroines. Nora Roberts has repeatedly referred to her as a favorite; Sandra Brown wrote a glowing forward to the reissue of Nine Coaches Waiting.

Of course, these being midcentury bestsellers, you’ll regularly stub your toe on elements that are dated in a bad way. The hero of Madam, Will You Talk? at one point grabs the heroine’s wrist so hard it bruises, then spends half the novel car-chasing her around southern France. Of course, he thinks she’s part of a conspiracy of murderers who’ve got his son, but he’s still a bit of a shitheel. In This Rough Magic, Stewart’s protagonist has entirely too many thoughts on the nature of “The Greek.” I haven’t the heart to read The Gabriel Hounds, set in Lebanon. In Nine Coaches Waiting, the hero teasingly refers to the heroine as a “Sabine.” I think Thunder on the Right maybe has a Mrs. Danvers-style villainous lesbian nun?

And make no mistake, the gender dynamics between hero and heroine aren’t fully modern. Take 1962’s The Moon-Spinners. Nicola is an independent woman, working at the British Embassy in Athens and confidently traveling Greece on her own. She stumbles into trouble when she comes across a wounded Englishman named Mark, who sends her away:

I found a wry humour in wondering just what Mark would have said, had he known that he was packing me off, with prudent haste, from the perimeter of the affair into its very centre. He had wanted me safely out of it, and had made this abundantly clear, even to the point of rudeness; and I—who had taken my responsibilities for long enough—had resented bitterly a rejection that had seemed to imply a sexual superiority. If I had been a man, would Mark have acted the same way? I thought not.
But at least emotion no longer clouded my judgment. Sitting here quietly, now, seeing things from the outside, I could appreciate his point of view. He wanted me safe—and he wanted his own feet clear. Well, fair enough. I had realized (even at the risk of conceding him a little of that sexual superiority) that I wanted both those things, quite fervently, myself.

Later, after she’s gotten even deeper into Mark’s troubles, Nicola realizes she’d love to hand things over: “He was waiting for me to assert my independence. For once, I had not the least desire to do so. The thought of leaving these capable males, an walking down alone to Stratos’ hotel, was about as attractive as going out unclothed into a hailstorm.” She adds that “his cool assumption of responsibility never raised a single bristle,” but rather inspired “a treacherous glow, somewhere in the region of the stomach.”

But this precedes the climax of the novel, when circumstances force her to swim across a bay in the dead of night, only to encounter one of the crooks. Sure, she’d love to dump everything on Mark and let him lead, but that’s just not in the cards. She’s boxed into displays of heroism—but heroism is where her women end up, all the same. These books are wildly entertaining and spectacularly written products of their time, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon, and I can’t put the damn things down.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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