RogerBW's Blog

Airs Above the Ground, Mary Stewart 25 June 2017

1965 mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. Vanessa March, married two years, had a fight with her husband Lewis just before he left on a business trip to Stockholm. But then he shows up on a newsreel about a circus fire in Austria… with his arm round a blonde.

And of course that's not what the story is going to be about, because this isn't one of those dreary books about the inevitability of infidelity, but it's the spur for Vanessa to agree to accompany her feckless friend's young son on a trip to visit his father in Vienna. Timothy hasn't been entirely open about his situation either, and they soon fall into conspiracy. Before things are over there will have been reconciliation, fights, a rooftop chase, daring rescues, and Lippizan horses.

Stewart is increasing the humour again here; the hausfrau who objects more to her best plates getting shot than to her husband getting beaten up perhaps falls a bit flat, but the banter between Vanessa and Tim, and Lewis when he shows up, makes up for it. There's a sense of the ridiculous which is an effective counterpoint to the serious business that forms the main plot. Vanessa may stumble into the latter accidentally, but she acquits herself well, and her skills as a vet are distinctly important to the story; there's also a fair bit of horse care and training, which never quite reaches the level of infodump though it comes close at times.

Scenary, while still described in lush detail for a largely non-travelling readership, is now also well integrated into the story, with a castle converted into an hotel (based apparently on the Schloss Weesenstein near the Czech border), and a rack-and-pinion railway which includes an obvious Chekov's gun.

Pacing is a little off at the end, with the principal plot basically dealt with two chapters early, and an accidental and artificial-feeling crisis added to give Vanessa something heroic to do at the climax.

Some of the attitudes may seem dated to a modern reader – Vanessa has stopped working when she got married, for example, though she feels strong objections when the menfolk swan in and take control of the situation she'd been handling – but everything comes together well and I think this is one of Stewart's best.

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