RogerBW's Blog

The Gabriel Hounds, Mary Stewart 07 April 2018

1967 mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. On holiday in Syria and the Lebanon, Christy Mansel runs into her cousin Charles. They decide to drop in on their great-aunt "Lady" Harriet, who's been doing the Lady Hester Stanhope thing and living in the local style in a remote palace. But when Christy steals a march on Charles and goes on her own, she discovers a rather more disturbing situation than she expected…

And yet somehow it doesn't quite work, and I think a large part of the problem is the heroine. In other books Stewart's heroines have generally been pretty solid and independent characters, with well-developed and divergent personalities, but Christy is just sort of there. Stewart could perhaps have pulled off a rich and somewhat spoiled girl having to cope with things on her own for the first time, but there's usually help to be had (whether from cousin Charles or from a local driver who goes well beyond the terms of his contract), and when there isn't Christy is much more of a passive observer than other Stewart heroines. (If Vanessa March were in this book, she would tell Christy to pull her socks up, and get on with solving the mystery.) At one point, when her captors are arguing, she sticks around to be witness to the events rather than slip out through the open prison door. As for the hero, he's absent most of the time, and even the romance takes the form of drifting into a love that's been there for years rather than falling in love.

And it's a shame because the rest of it does work, with Stewart's usual lyrical landscapes, some splendid moments involving the animal inhabitants of the palace, a villain out of his depth but doing his best to salvage the situation (though the chapter in which, for no particular reason, he exposits his scheme to Christy is laboured at best), and Evil Drug Smuggling; my wife grew quite misty-eyed at the recollection of an era when good-quality Red Leb was readily available for a mere eight pounds an ounce.

This has been the first real disappointment in my re-reading of Stewart; I had recalled that the books did start going downhill a bit in her later years, but I had thought it was not quite yet.

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