RogerBW's Blog

Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart 23 October 2014

1954; mystery/thriller or romantic suspense; first published novel by Mary Stewart. Charity Selborne is on holiday in Provence, and meets young David Shelley and his stepmother Loraine Bristol. Somewhere in the background is David's father, recently acquitted of the grisly murder of his best friend, and believed by many to be mad…

Unlike the later Agatha Christie style of writing mystery, in which she chose the guilty party after having written most of the book so as not to favour any one person in the matter of clues or red herrings, it's clear that Stewart had a specific resolution in mind from the beginning. That obviously makes it hard to talk about the book without giving things away, but I'll do my best.

The book falls into three parts: the introduction of the principals and a hair-raising drive across France trying to lead one of them astray, a long discussion à deux in a variety of cafés in Marseilles, and the final action and resolution of events. It's an odd pacing, but one that worked for me. There's an effective sense of suspense and fear even though nobody gets hurt on-stage until the final moments, which is unusual and rather a neat trick.

Charity Selborne is an excellent heroine, sharp, well-spoken and tougher than she realises. She's not a fighter or a sharpshooter, but she is a very fine driver, taught by her fighter-pilot husband (who died in the war) not to be afraid of speed but not to be excited by it either. She involves herself simply because she sees a boy in terror, and everything else follows from there. As she points out, much of the story has already happened by the time she finds out about it, and she comes in only for the last act: but what an act it is.

There's a certain amount of contrivance and coincidence (some of it even lampshaded in the epilogue), and some motives as eventually revealed aren't altogether consistent with earlier actions by the same people. The villains are finally despatched practically off-stage, certainly with none of the good guys' hands getting dirty, though that needs even more contrivance to make it work. Most modern readers will probably complain more about all the smoking. More fool them.

Descriptions of scenery, not just the big tourist sites but landscapes and even a tree outside the window of Charity's room, are evocative and superb. There may be life-and-death struggles going on, but there's always time to appreciate the beauty of southern France.

Not, perhaps, Stewart at her peak, but I'd still be very proud if I'd written this book, and I'd definitely recommend it.

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