RogerBW's Blog

This Rough Magic, Mary Stewart 16 March 2017

1964 mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. After the play that was to be her Big Break closed in disgrace, Lucy Waring goes to visit her married sister in Corfu. But why would anyone shoot at the dolphin that comes into their bay?

In The Moon-Spinners I got the impression that Stewart was starting to play some of the tropes of the romantic thriller for laughs, and here I'm sure of it. Yes, all the action is here, but it's often tinged with a sense of the slightly ridiculous. When Lucy wonders whether someone would be able to get their hands on a weapon, her sister answers:

"Give me strength! Gun-room! The Castello walls are just about papered with the things! Guns, daggers, spears, assegais, the lot. I'll swear there's everything there from carbines to knuckle-dusters. There's even a cannon at the front door! Good heavens, Leo's grandfather collected the things! Nobody's going to know if a dozen rifles or so go missing!"

Given the title, and the further quotes from The Tempest at the head of each chapter, one might have expected usurpers, magic, or a storm; no such luck. One of the characters does advance a theory that the coast of Corfu might be the site of the "real" Prospero's cave, but that's about all it comes to; this is a firmly modern story, with nervous breakdowns, high-powered rifles, smuggling, and the Albanian coast just across the strait.

Lucy doesn't think of herself as a particular tough heroine, but she is: she's resourceful and strong-willed, actually a vaguely competent actress, and keeps working at something until it's resolved. The romance angle is strongly presented, with a good sense of (rapidly) growing attachment.

Yes, all right, the Greeks are presented as a simple people: hospitable, volatile in their anger, willing to resolve situations with knives rather than talking; it does get a bit patronising at times. But then you meet something like this sequence where Lucy's sister has left a ring on the beach, and:

'If it comes to that, he gave me the beastly ring, and it belongs to his beastly family, and if I lose it—'

'You haven't lost it.'

'The tide'll wash it away.'

'There's no tide.'

'Your foul dolphin'll eat it. Something'll happen to it, I know it will.'

or this section that I'm going to quote in full because it's such fun:

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. At one end of a hall was a massive curved staircase, with a wrought-iron banister and bare stone treads. The walls were panelled in the darkest possible oak, and what small rugs lay islanded on the marble sea were (as far as I could judge in the gloom) done in uniform shades of drab and olive-green. A colossal open fireplace, built for roasting oxen whole, by men who had never roasted, and would never roast, an ox whole in their lives, half-filled one wall. The hearth of this bristled with spits and dogs and tongs and cauldrons and a hundred other mediæval kitchen gadgets whose functions I couldn't even guess at; they looked like -- and probably were -- instruments of torture. For the rest, the hall was cluttered like a bargain basement: the Gales must have thrown most of the furniture out of their big living-room to clear the acoustics -- or perhaps merely in the interests of sane living -- and as a result the hall was crammed full of enormous, over-stuffed furniture in various shades of mud, with innumerable extras in the way of bamboo tables, Chinese screens, and whatnots in spindly and very shiny wood. I thought I glimpsed a harmonium, but might have been wrong, because there was a full-sized organ, pipes and all, in the darkness beyond a fretwork dresser and a coat-rack made of stags' antlers. There was certainly a harp, and a small forest of pampas grass stuck in what I am sure was the severed foot of an elephant. These riches were lit with a merciful dimness by a single weak bulb in a torch held by a fully armed Javanese warrior who looked a bit like a gila monster in rut.

That is an unexpectedly splendid touch of humour in what could otherwise be rather a grim book, and the blend works better than either would alone.

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